It’s not the visceral, visual savagery that makes “Raging Bull” such a cringeworthy spectacle.

It’s all of the brutality bubbling just under the surface, the brutality that forces you to watch through your hands. You know what’s coming. Everybody around Jake LaMotta knows what’s coming.

And it always comes eventually.

One of the finest sports movies ever made comes from one of the greatest directors in the history of American cinema. When you think of Martin Scorcese, you think of “Goodfellas” or “The Departed” or, more recently thanks to the emergence of Netflix-and-chill, “The Irishman.” It’s almost infathomable that Scorcese first discovered his true style — his uniquely independent voice as a filmmaker — in a boxing movie biopic.

“Raging Bull” earned Robert DeNiro an Oscar as Best Actor in 1980 for his flawless performance of LaMotta. And the movie itself is noteworthy for that, but also for the introduction to the big stage of Joe Pesci and the birth of an on-screen duo in Pesci and DeNiro that’s been at it for more than 40 years together.

In a crowded field of boxing movies at the turn of the decade, “Raging Bull” took its title shot and delivered.


Where the “Rocky” franchise began to emerge with a down-on-his-luck protagonist everybody wanted to love, there was little lovable outside the ring when it came to LaMotta. He was a predator in and out of the ropes, his assaulting style of pugilism simply a translation of his life away from the gym.

He beat his wife. He fought mobsters and their connections, all but cutting off his career as it began to peak. Proving his jealous rages had no limits, no boundaries of common sense, he viciously fought his own brother and manager — having accused him of trying to have an affair with his wife.

Violence is the very heart of the fight game, the original combat sport. Two contestants, toe to toe, separated by only inches and sweat, unleashing fists on one another with the sole goal of rendering the other unconscious.

Scorcese harnesses that violence, most of his fight sequences presented in stark black and white as something of a dream sequence to really pop off the screen and dare the audience to face it. Where “Rocky” embraced the pomp and circumstance of boxing (see also: Apollo Creed’s wild ring entrances), “Raging Bull” puts the audience not in the center of the ring — but backed against the ropes with no escape from the thump of fist against skull, the spray of sweat traded from one fighter to the other, the spurts of blood erupting from fresh cuts.

As good as the film’s presentation is, it’s not the star of the show.

That honor belongs to DeNiro as LaMotta.


LaMotta is what boxing has long told us it was — the chance for the underprivileged to punch their way out of the projects, out of racial and ethnic stereotypes.

There are parts of LaMotta’s character to be admired, certainly. He refuses to go down, even after dropping the championship he spent too many years to earn, he chides Sugar Ray Robinson at the final bell — letting him know, repeatedly, that Robinson was never able to knock him down. He tried forever to make it to the top of the middleweight division in the 1950s based on his own merits in the midst of a corrupt and crooked structure for getting to the top.

But that desire to walk the straight and narrow, to rise above the fray, wasn’t really LaMotta.

In his post-fighting career, he caroused enough to have his wife finally — justly — walk out on him. He was thrown in jail for providing underage women to the male patrons in the nightclub he owned bearing his own name. He tried his hand at “stand-up comedy,” never understanding the difference between ironic one-liners and being flat-out insulting to his audience

But where we really see LaMotta as the “bull,” as the man who believes he can just will his body to produce whatever he wants, is in one final heartbreaking scene with his brother.

After years of not seeing or talking to one another, Jake happens upon Joey late at night. He tries to get his brother’s attention. He tries to talk to him, to repair the damage of lost years. He even tries — awkwardly, sadly — to bully his brother into a hug and a kiss. He corners Joey against his car, as he would have used his body years earlier to cut off a ring to corner an opponent, but it’s clumsy and heartbreaking.

Joey, at some point later in his life, learned what all in Jake LaMotta’s life learned: Violence always bubbled just under the surface, and you were best to stand clear when the bull finally raged.

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