Joey LaMotta: What the fuck do you want? That's hard. What are you trying to prove?
The film begins in 1964, as we see an overweight, aging LaMotta, now a comedian, practicing his routine. The scene changes. It is now 1941, as LaMotta boxes and throws his fights at the behest of the mafia. His brother and manager, Joey LaMotta, does his best to support Jake and get him a chance at success. Jake seduces Vicky, a 15-year-old girl he met at a Bronx public pool. While he catches a break and wins a string of victories, he becomes increasingly paranoid that Vicky is cheating on him, and becomes more and more abusive. Eventually, he accuses his brother of sleeping with his wife and attacks them. The rest of the film details the aftermath in the following years after LaMotta has retired, as he spirals downward ever further.
The boxing fights themselves are notable for their cinematography. Run entirely on the Rule of Drama, they look nothing like actual bouts. One Fight Unscene consists of two still frames: Jake LaMotta with his fist drawn back, and another, him standing triumphant over his downed opponent. Additionally, sponges filled with fake blood were inserted into the boxing gloves, spraying the fighters and the ropes with amounts of fluid previously unseen in a sports movie.
While critical reception was mixed at the time of its release, and it was passed up for Best Picture and Best Director at the Oscars in favor of Ordinary People Raging Bull has since become a critical favorite, and is viewed as one of the best movies of all time. It won De Niro his second Oscar, this time for Best Actor, following his Best Supporting Actor win for The Godfather Part II, and is frequently cited as one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema.
A sequel was long in Development Hell (with LaMotta's involvement), but eventually under the threat of a lawsuit from MGM, the title was changed from Raging Bull II to The Bronx Bull in order to disassociate itself from the original. The film stars William Forsythe as the older Jake LaMotta, Morjean Aria as a young LaMotta, and has a supporting cast including the likes of Joe Mantegna, Tom Sizemore, Penelope Ann Miller, Natasha Henstridge, Alicia Witt, Ray Wise, and James Russo.
This work contains the following tropes:
- Artistic License: The boxing sequences are very stylized. Each sequence is shot differently from the last and since the camera was in the ring with the actors, this meant it was much bigger than an actual boxing ring. The sequences used a lot of distortion effects to provide a psychological sense of "being in the ring". Scorsese said that he was bored with the conventional approach of shooting boxing from outside the ring as seen in newsreel and sports broadcasts which is why he went in the opposite direction.
- As the Good Book Says...: Right before the end credits, the film displays a quotation from The Gospel of John.''So, for the second time, [the Pharisees] summoned the man who had been blind and said:
"Speak the truth before God. We know this fellow is a sinner."
"Whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know," the man replied.
"All I know is this: Once I was blind and now I can see."— John IX. 24–26, The New English Bible
- Big Brother Bully: Jake to Joey.
- Bittersweet Ending: Jake at the end is shown to have a promising stand-up comedian career, but in the end he's completely ostracized from his wife, kids, and brother, and he pawned off the title he worked so hard to get in order to bail himself out of prison.
- Book-Ends: It starts and ends with Jake preparing for a routine after his retirement.
- Break the Haughty: The premise of this film, showing the repercussions incurred on Jake LaMotta because of his insecurity and anger, ultimately changing him as a human being.
- Byronic Hero: Jake.
- Chiaroscuro: The opening shot, the scene where Jake is training in a steam room, other scenes.
- Classical Anti-Hero: Jake
- Cluster F-Bomb: To say that it was one of the earliest films to have at least 100 usage of the f-words, such as during Joey's Your Mom discussion on the phone, doesn't even begin to describe it.
- Crazy Jealous Guy: Again, Jake. His jealousy fits often (if not always) came out of nowhere and from the slightest persuasions. In the words of his brother, he's "crackin' up."
- How crazy is he? His wife mentions off hand that one of his future opponents is "pretty good looking." Jake's response? Give him a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown and specifically breaking his nose so he won't be so pretty anymore.
- Creator Cameo: Martin Scorsese is the usher in the last scene telling LaMotta it's time to come out.
- Composite Character: Joey LaMotta is a combination of the real Joey LaMotta and Jake's friend, Pete Petrella.
- Of the conventional Hollywood Biopic (by showing the character Warts and All, avoiding Historical Hero Upgrade and refusing to sanitize the ugliness) and the sports movie genre (no, "success" in the boxing ring doesn't solve your personal problems or win you the love of your life) and the concept of redemption (it can sometimes take years for people to accept that they've done something wrong and even then they can't count on other people accepting that they have changed).
- More specifically, the movie shows the physical and psychological toll a career in sports involves, especially one like boxing. All of those punches on different parts of your body will take a toll on you, the effort it takes to maintain physique is such that on retirement, Jake really lets himself go. Likewise, on retirement, boxers have to rest on their winnings and income or find another means of income because the sporting career only lasts until you approach 40.
- It also shows that as much skill as boxing involves, sportsmen are nothing without the managers, coaches and institutions that will get them their big goal, advise them on how to protect their money and generally prevent them from making fools of themselves. Jake LaMotta learns far too late about this at which point he has alienated all of his friends and family.
- Deliberately Monochrome: The movie is in black and white, except for a sequence of home movies shot in color.
- Scorsese has stated that he decided to film it this way at least in part because fellow director Michael Powell, who happened to be viewing the initial (color) footage of De Niro as LaMotta with him, pointed out that the gloves De Niro was wearing were the wrong color for the period.
- Deliberate Values Dissonance: Jake and Joey are just as racist and homophobic as you'd expect the average Italian-American from 1940's New York to be. Joey calls an African-American fighter a "moulie," while Jake chides Joey by telling him he punches like he "takes it up the ass."
- The Determinator: "I didn't go down Ray!"
- Domestic Abuser: Jake. Once he knocked his wife out with one hit, in his brother's residence, just moments after attacking his brother in front of his family.
- Fallen-on-Hard-Times Job: The movie's Framing Device.
- Fanservice: Vicki's introduction, especially the shot of her legs kicking in the pool.
- Fatal Flaw: Just as in Greek tragedy, the same trait that brings Jake initial success (his skill in physical violence) is the same one which brings about his downfall (as his impulsive violence against his friends, family and loved ones ultimately results in driving them all away from him).
- Good News, Bad News: What Tommy Como told Joey about the mafia's support for Jake. He'll get the title shot, but he needs to take a dive first.
- Good People Have Good Sex: Before Jake's jealousy begins to rear its ugly head, he and Vicki are quite hot for each other, to the point that Jake gets quite close to breaking the "no sex before a fight" guideline.
- Hair-Trigger Temper: Jake LaMotta.
- Heel Realization: It takes several decades, and some prison time, a lot of wall punching before Jake confronts that he's been a jerk. It is this quality that makes him among the most sympathetic Scorsese anti-heros.
- Historical Hero Upgrade: Averted in general but Paul Schrader who wrote the screenplay felt that the very act of making this film gives LaMotta this, noting that the film implies that he was a more significant figure in boxing and sports than his career otherwise supports. He feels that the film ultimately elevated a mediocrity to a level of fame he otherwise wouldn't deserve.
- Historical Villain Downgrade: When he watched the film with one of his ex-wives, Jake LaMotta he asked her: "was I really that bad?" She replied "you were worse!" The movie supposedly omits LaMotta's worst excesses. In his autobiography, ghost-written by Peter Savage, he admits to raping a woman and hitting a man with a lead pipe whilst mugging him. LaMotta believed he had killed the man, only to discover years later that his victim survived. In any case, the source for this, the "autobiography" was mostly written by Peter Savage, Jake's friend (and a model for Joey, a composite of Jake's brother, Savage and one other friend) and it was written largely to gain a movie deal and was filled with deliberately sensationalist, over-the-top material.
- Hit Me, Dammit!: In an earlier scene between Jake and Joey.
- Homage: The I Coulda Been a Contender! monologue from On the Waterfront.
- Homoerotic Subtext: All over the place.
- How We Got Here: See Book-Ends.
- Hypocrite: Jake's Crazy Jealous Guy antics over Vicki are made worst when you remember that Jake both cheated on and later left his wife for her. Near the end of the movie he starts making out with various women in his club.
- Jerkass: Only for about 10-20% of the whole film does Jake not act like a jerk in some way. LaMotta himself has said he never realized what a terrible person he was until he saw the movie. When he asked his ex-wife if he was really that bad, she told him that he was even worse.
- Made of Iron: Jake beats his fists and head against concrete and doesn't come out worse for wear.
- Possibly justified, as the real life Jake may have had the hardest head in boxing history. The fact that Lightning Bruiser Sugar Ray Robinson couldn't knock him down in real life despite administering a vicious No-Holds-Barred Beatdown, (in a fight that was later dubbed "The Saint Valentine's Day Massacre", no less) says a lot. He also ended up living to age 95 despite all the damage he took.
- He does cry out "My hand!" after he's done punching the concrete.
- No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: The boxing matches, particularly his final match with Sugar Ray Robinson.
- Joey gives Salvy a pretty good one too.
- Off-the-Shelf FX: Hershey's chocolate sauce was used for blood.
- Playing the Heart Strings: The soundtrack.
- Redemption Quest: The very end of the film implies that Jake having learnt and accepted that he was a jerk decides to become a better person.
- Red Oni, Blue Oni: Jake is a hothead, Joey is restrained.
- Sexless Marriage: Jake is an incredibly jealous husband who regularly beats his wife because he suspects she might be interested in other men. He also apparently has no desire to actually have sex with her (which she shows subtle frustration with in one scene). This has, of course, fuelled the Homoerotic Subtext interpretation of his character.
- Shirtless Scene: It's about a boxer.
- Splash of Color: LaMotta's home movies.
- And the title of the film itself in the credit sequence.
- Stating the Simple Solution: Desperate for money, Jake bursts into the house and smashes up his championship belt so he can sell the jewels from it. The jeweller points out if he'd just brought along the intact belt he could have sold it for a lot more money.
- Title Drop: "The middleweight champion. The big dog. The raging bull..."
- Vertigo Effect: On Ray Robinson before Robinson finishes destroying LaMotta in Jake's last fight.
- Your Mom: Joey gets like this when he is (presumably) talking to Sal on the phone, unaware that Jake is on the line instead:Joey: You listening? Your mother sucks fucking, big, fucking elephant dicks! You got that?
Jake: Who's an animal? Your mother's an animal! You son of a bitch!
- Early on, when replying to his neighbor Larry's complaints, Jake delivers this little gem: