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Film / Raging Bull

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The original theatrical poster by Tom Jung.

Jake LaMotta: Come on, hit me. Harder. Harder.
Joey LaMotta: What the fuck do you want? That's hard. What are you trying to prove?

Raging Bull is a 1980 film, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro. It revolves around middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta (De Niro), a man who is consumed by his anger, paranoia, and shame.

The film begins in 1964, as we see an overweight, aging LaMotta, now a comedian, practicing his routine. The scene then changes to 1941, as LaMotta boxes and throws his fights at the behest of the mafia. His brother and manager, Joey LaMotta (Joe Pesci), does his best to support Jake and get him a chance at success. At the same time, Jake seduces Vikki (Cathy Moriarty), a 15-year-old girl he met at a Bronx public pool.

While he catches a break and wins a string of victories, LaMotta becomes increasingly paranoid that Vikki is cheating on him, and becomes more and more abusive. 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: LaMotta with his fist drawn back, and 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 regularly regarded as one of Scorsese's crowning achievements and 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 his performance is frequently cited as one of the greatest 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 Anne Miller, Natasha Henstridge, Frank Vincent, 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 is a Deconstruction; his flaws are simply too much to bear and instead of coming across as inspiring, he's more pathetic and obnoxious.
  • 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.
  • Deconstruction:
    • 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. Scorsese also revealed in a contemporary interview with Film Comment that he wanted to ensure that the film preserved better over the decades, as it was produced around the time when color fading in old Eastmancolor prints (which resulted in them looking unnaturally pink because of the yellow and cyan dyes degrading) became widely known to filmmakers. Despite the home movie sequences being shot in color, Scorsese didn't have anything to worry about, as they were shot on the same kinds of reversal film stocks used for actual home movies at the time (reversal stocks don't suffer from the same fading problem due to the dyes being far more stable than in Eastmancolor, and indeed wider-gauge reversal stock would ultimately supplant Eastmancolor in the film industry as a result of the dye degradation issue).
  • 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." Hell, even Jake's first wife throws around homophobic slurs when she's mad!
  • The Determinator: Jake LaMotta is not an easy foe to take down, especially notable in the Sugar Ray battles. He even says this line: "I didn't go down Ray!"
  • Domestic Abuse: 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: Vikki'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).
    • A less literal reading of his flaws suggests Jake's jealousy is what consumes him and destroys everything he has. Violence is simply the expression and the means. Early in the film Jake gets downcast about never getting the recognition of, or being able to even fight, world heavyweight champion Joe Louis, who Jake is "sure" he could beat. His jealousy doesn't stop at boxing, and shows itself much more than his physical violence - which is remarkable for a boxing film.
  • Flat Character: Joey's wife Lenora has literally no personality other than being Joey's wife and barely even says anything. Jake and Vikki's children also fit this trope as all of their scenes are around at least one of their parents, heck, we don't even know what their names are!
  • 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.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Jake LaMotta for sure. And since the poster boy for this trope Joe Pesci plays Joey, he gets a couple of moments of this as well.
  • 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 Badass Upgrade: Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplay, felt that film implies that LaMotta was a more significant figure in boxing and sports than his career otherwise supports, and 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 Vikki 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.
  • It's All About Me: Jake is supremely self-centered, which, when paired with a Hair-Trigger Temper, crazy jealousy and paranoia leads him to alienate everyone close to him.
  • Jailbait Taboo: Vikki is just 15 when Jake (who's 20 at the time) starts seeing her. Much later on, Jake's downfall in Miami happens when he canoodles a bit with a young lady at his club who says she's 21, and introduces her to some male customers. Turns out she was actually 14 and using a fake ID, so the vice squad busts him and he gets incarcerated.
  • 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.note 
    • He does cry out "My hand!" after he's done punching the concrete.
  • Mama Bear: Eventually, Vikki gets so frustrated over her husband's constant abuse and terrorizing, she decides to divorce him, move away, bring her children with her, and threatened to call the police if he showed his face at the house again. How's that for dedication to protecting your loved ones?
  • Nasal Trauma: Vikki absently mentions that his next opponent, Tony Janiro, has a pretty face... and Jake takes it personally: when they meet in the ring, the Bronx Bull goes straight for Janiro's face and doesn't stop until he's satisfied. Close-up shots show the poor bastard's nose being squished flat with a loud wet crunch, gushing blood everywhere.
    Tommy: He ain't pretty no more.
  • 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.
  • One Head Taller: This effect is present whenever 5' 3" Joe Pesci is in the same shot as Robert De Niro or Cathy Moriarty, who are both 5' 9".
  • One Dialogue, Two Conversations: An extended Played for Drama example in the scene where Jake suspects that Joey and Vikki are having an affair. Joey, totally taken aback at Jake's paranoia, refuses to discuss the issue, which Jake takes as confirmation that his suspicions are true. Then when Jake confronts her about it, she sarcastically tells him she's slept with every man on their block, exasperatedly trying to get him to see how ridiculous he's being. But Jake is Sarcasm-Blind and completely believes her.
  • Playing the Heart Strings: The soundtrack.
  • Realistic Diction Is Unrealistic: A very strong aversion, with the leads often mumbling or talking quickly.
  • 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. A very big switch from later pairings of De Niro and Pesci.
    • Also in the boxing ring. Jake is the hard-nosed bruiser, and his archrival Sugar Ray Robinson is the more polished, athletic boxer.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Subverted. Jake was told that his rape charge would go away if he paid ten grand to get the charges dropped, but since he didn't have the money and his friends abandoned him, he attempted to sell the jewels from his championship belt, which the pawnshop owner said were worthless, as the belt itself was of higher value.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: The underage girl at the club who claimed she was 21 but was really 15. Because of her vague but likely illegal interactions with the grown men at Jake's club,note  he went from merely being washed-up to outright disgraced and imprisoned.
  • Shirtless Scene: It's about a boxer.
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: Jake and his younger brother Joey — especially the latter — drop a lot of F-bombs and other forms of profanity.
    Jake: Joey, how many times I gotta tell ya? Why're you always cursin' when I'm talkin' to you? Don't do it around me. Do it around your friends...
  • 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.
  • Villain Protagonist: Jake himself, full stop.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Jake has one when he gets arrested and starts punching and banging the walls and crying in despair.
  • Worthy Opponent: This seems to ultimately be how Jake and Sugar Ray Robinson regard each other. They fought six times, with Robinson winning five of the bouts, but LaMotta's win marked Robinson's first professional defeat after 40 victories.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Jake physically abuses Vikki whenever he gets pissed at her.
  • 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?
    • Early on, when replying to his neighbor Larry's complaints, Jake delivers this little gem:
    Jake: Who's an animal? Your mother's an animal! You son of a bitch!