Directed by Martin Scorsese
Raging Bull is brutal, both inside the ring and out. Robert De Niro plays boxer Jake La Motta, a jealous man with a temper and insecurity and probably some Catholic guilt. He is managed by his brother Joey (Joe Pesci) and falls in some sort of love with a fifteen year old girl named Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) while he goes about his boxing career, which we follow over the course of almost ten years.
A lot of sports movies focus on a narrow window in time, maybe a football season or just a few games or even one night. Boxing films seem to focus on only a few fights as we follow our hero from the bottom to the top. Boxing is apparently a very cinematic sport (Rocky, Raging Bull, Ali, The Fighter, Southpaw, the new Miles Teller boxing movie, all subsequent Rocky movies, Creed, etc.), and it’s because movies are about conflict, of which there is plenty on boxing. It’s a one on one sport, each punch is a beat, putting you closer or further away from victory. But with Raging Bull, Jake is already a pretty good boxer, and we never see his real rise. He’s close enough to the top that when he gets there (about halfway through the film), it doesn’t feel like a huge deal. The film spends more time on his downfall and life outside of the ring.
The most impressive fights are the ones in which Jake loses and the ones he has in his own life. The most heated being his fight with Vickie and then his brother Joey. He doesn’t talk to his brother again for years, and they only run into each other during Jake’s tremendous fall from grace as a much older, scarred, overweight man.
Jake’s journey from stud boxer to where he is at the end is made clear from the beginning. After the credit sequence (a slow motion shot of Jake getting ready in a ring, though with no opponent) we start with Jake as we see him at the end of the film. He’s 23 years older than when we see him at his youngest, and he’s in a dressing room, rehearsing a story about his career for some sort of media appearance. There is a direct cut to the next shot, a close up on young Jake’s lean face right as he’s pummeled by his opponent. This sequence sets up the brutality of his sport as well as his own nostalgia for his ascension to the throne. Jake’s career plays out more like one of Scorsese’s mafia movies or something out of Game of Thrones. It’s always about power, and Jake is always at risk of losing everything.
Hell, after Jake wins the championship belt, he has to defend it only a month later (he wins). There is no time to rest, but Jake’s not the type to rest anyways. He’s married the first time we meet him, and yet he disregards his wife completely when he meets Vicki. In one scene, he and Joey dress up for a night out (with the intention of making a move on Vicki) in the same house as Jake’s wife. He doesn’t care about her, but his apathy towards her is actually the least antagonistic relationship in his story. We never see the fallout of their marriage. Instead his first wife just disappears from the story, and Vicki takes her place.
There’s a nice montage of family home video of Jake’s marriage and Joey’s own marriage as well. Through these couple of minutes we jump quickly through the years and watch Jake’s ascension as a boxer as well as the growth of his and Joey’s families. This sequence just shows us everything that he will eventually lose, and in this part of the film we witness every good thing to happen to him. So we basically see all the good stuff happen in a few minutes, and the rest of the film is all of the bad stuff.
Jake believes Vicki might be sleeping around on him, he’s tired of being micro-managed by his brother who wants to make sure he stays under the target weight (he’s middleweight), and he’s even forced to throw a fight. After he pathetically loses (it’s not hard to see from the outside how poor of a fall job it was), Jake breaks down in the locker room. It’s him at his lowest point during his career (his entire life post career feels like a low point too), but he never falls during the fight. Instead he just stands there and takes a fake beating. Later, in his last fight, Jake suffers a horrible beating, but he effectively just gives up on the idea of winning and refuses to go down. His opponent wins, but Jake proudly tells him “You never knocked me down” while his face is swollen and bloodied. That final fight feels like penance for Jake. There is plenty of religious imagery throughout the film, and I know Scorsese has a strong faith, so the final fight, after Jake has already lost so much, feels like him taking a purposeful beating for all the things he’s done. He has already hit his wife and beat up his brother at this point, basically isolating himself from the people he loves.
So in the end, Jake’s boxing career feels more like a series of beatdowns he endures both physically and personally. It never feels fun or adventurous, just painful and ruthless. Jake is himself violent and self-harming because of his quickness to solve every conflict with his fists. Any conflict is escalated from 0 to 10 almost immediately, and his career as a boxer feels like an extension of all his bad qualities. And yet there we have Jake at the very end, quoting On The Waterfront‘s famous speech (“I could’ve been somebody”) even though he was somebody. He has endured an impressive decline, and yet he romanticizes his career, practicing a speech that reflects his own journey but is someone else’s journey, a fictional character’s journey. Jake delivers this speech to his own reflection, and it feels like he has greatly distanced himself from his own story. The speech he delivers makes it clear that he feels hurt, like he’s the one who has suffered despite the audience knowing how violent and hurtful he has been to those around him. He tries to neatly package his messy, destructive story into a quote from a movie, essentially writing out all of the shit that we’ve just seen unfold. He pumps himself up, performing practice jabs in his dressing room and psyches himself up for this final appearance like it’s another boxing match. Instead of fighting an opponent, he’s fighting himself. Jake delivers this speech about what happened to him to himself in the mirror, completely unaware that he’s addressing his own mistakes without owning them.