Watching sports on film can be tricky: the audience needs the story and the sport needs the story because, otherwise, we’re just watching a fixed game. We know there’s only one conclusion and as a viewer, that’s not interesting. Instead, what leads us to our spirited involvement in the fixed fight is everything surrounding it and leading up to it. A successful film involving sports is really a successful film about characters. And Martin Scorsese’s 1980 picture, ‘Raging Bull,’ is an amazingly successful film about a character.
‘Raging Bull’ follows Bronx boxer Jake LaMotta as he works his way up the ranks in the boxing circuit. LaMotta is talented but cocky and is constantly missing a shot at the title because of his refusal to fix fights. When he eventually concedes and throws a match, he “earns” his shot at the title and gets it, but his personality and jealousy eventually get the better of him and he begins a downward spiral in his career and his personal life. The effectiveness of ‘Raging Bull’ doesn’t come from the plot itself. Rather, the greatness of the film stems from Robert DeNiro’s portrayal of Jake LaMotta. ‘Raging Bull’ is an amazing character study of a person who is so caught up in his own insecurities that he can’t even see them, putting up a hard, cocky and jealous exterior as an almost subconscious reaction to what he doesn’t even know he’s feeling that ultimately causes him to lose everything. DeNiro’s performance is so commanding and refreshing that it makes you yearn to see the Bobby D. of the ‘Raging Bull’ era back in action. Indeed, DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta may just be one of my most hated characters in cinema. And yet, watching the man finally start to unravel in prison, you feel a slight sadness and understanding of the character. While he may not redeem himself, DeNiro exposes LaMotta’s weakness in character and, in doing so, especially in the prison scene, presents the audience with a chance to finally sympathize with the character. It would have been easy to play Jake LaMotta as an animal with no redeeming value. DeNiro’s sophisticated approach to him showed a true understanding of LaMotta, creating a complicated and flawed character in a performance that was worthy of the Best Actor Academy Award he received.
But this is a sports movie, too, and as such, it works very well. Martin Scorsese used an approach to capturing the boxing matches that was truly innovate for its time. Instead of capturing the matches from the audience’s perspective, Scorsese actually put the camera in the ring with the boxers, putting the audience in the action. Watching the picture now, we take this approach for granted, but in watching each fight scene, I can’t help but sit and marvel and the choreography that took place to get each match to where it was. Coordinating two fighters and a camera and still making the match feel raw and kinetic deserves praise for its innovation in camera work and editing.
We know ‘Raging Bull’ is a fixed fight. In fact, we know all films are fixed fights. The goal of everyone working on a picture is to get the audience to drop its guard long so that the film can get in and stun the viewers with a one-two punch. ‘Raging Bull’ knocks you down and drags you out for the ten count.