'Raging Bull': Robert De Niro & Martin Scorsese back in the ring in the U.K.
“In the autumn of 1980, Martin Scorsese arranged a preview on the Paramount lot of his latest film, a drama about prize fighter Jake LaMotta,” writes The Guardian's Ryan Gilbey in anticipation of the Aug. 17 rerelease of the widely acclaimed 1980 Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro collaboration Raging Bull. “Afterwards cinematographer Michael Chapman and Paul Schrader, one of two credited writers on the film, strolled out to the car park and mulled over what they had just seen. 'Wow,' said Chapman after a while. 'Marty really fucked that one up, didn't he?' Schrader drew a breath. 'Yeah,' he agreed. 'I don't know what went wrong there.'
“The following year, Raging Bull won two Oscars, having been nominated for eight. [The big winner that year was Robert Redford's Ordinary People.] The American Film Institute recently voted it the fourth greatest US film of all time, just behind Citizen Kane, The Godfather and Casablanca. Robert De Niro's ferocious portrayal of LaMotta is widely considered to be a benchmark in the history of screen performances, not to mention a textbook lesson in how method actors will go that extra mile – or, in the case of De Niro, who prepared for scenes as the overweight LaMotta by embarking on a culinary tour of Italy, several thousand extra miles. And yet the initial reaction of Chapman and Schrader anticipated the mood among cinemagoers. Despite the esteem in which Raging Bull is now held, its initial release was hardly a cause for widespread celebration.”
'Raging Bull': 'Most overrated American movie ever'?
Actually, Raging Bull wasn't exactly a box office flop in North America, grossing $23.33 million in the U.S. and Canada according to Box Office Mojo. (October 2013 update: That represents around $70 million today.) Additionally, even though Martin Scorsese's boxing drama didn't please every single North American critic out there, it did garner widespread praise, going on to win Best Film honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
Now, I must admit that I share Michael Chapman and Paul Schrader's initial reaction to Raging Bull. In fact, in my view Raging Bull is perhaps the most overrated American movie of all time.
For starters, I find it both overlong and overwrought, while the much revered slow-motion boxing scenes feel woefully artificial. Sure, Raging Bull is superior to John G. Avildsen and Sylvester Stallone's Rocky and to most other boxing dramas – but that's really not saying much.
As for Best Actor Academy Award winner Robert De Niro, his performance in Raging Bull chiefly consists of unintelligible grunts. As far as I'm concerned, Scorsese's favorite actor (in the director's pre-Leonardo DiCaprio days, that is) never manages to imbue the brutish Jake LaMotta with the sort of emotional complexity that would make him recognizably human – in other words, someone whose fate should be the viewer's concern.
Robert De Niro: 'Dedication to his craft'
In the last few decades, numerous movie pundits have been impressed by Robert De Niro's dedication to his craft – putting on a couple of tons to play Raging Bull's older Jake LaMotta. That in itself is supposed to justify De Niro's Oscar win.
Now, the same year Raging Bull came out, David Lynch came up with The Elephant Man. Starring John Hurt in the title role, Lynch's psychological drama showcased its leading man with his face covered in grotesque make-up. Even so, the Oscar-nominated Hurt – acting only with his eyes and voice – fully succeeded in conveying an actual person underneath that monstrous façade. On the other hand, underneath De Niro's added layers of flab, all I could see was more flab.
The next great Martin Scorsese classic
In case we still have a planet, in ten or twenty years time either Martin Scorsese's The Aviator or The Departed – or perhaps both – will be considered one (or two) of the greatest movies of the early 21st century. Just wait and see. Not that much unlike Raging Bull, both The Aviator and The Departed are superficial glimpses into the lives and issues of Scorsese's men – and apparently that's all a movie needs to be considered a major, lasting classic.
Now, if you want a truly good movie about boxing and boxers, check out Robert Wise's The Set-Up, a harrowing (screenplay by Art Cohn), beautifully shot (by Milton Krasner) 1949 film noir starring a superb Robert Ryan and a remarkably good Audrey Totter.
Raging Bull Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta photo: United Artists.