Raging Bull, by Albert W. Vogt III

How many boxing movies is too many?  I ask because I wonder if the recent volume of them that I have viewed pushes up against some imaginary border.  All the Rocky and Creed films are enough for a life time by themselves.  Yet, when Raging Bull (1980) is number four on the American Film Institute’s (AFI) 100 Greatest American Films of All Time, and you have not seen it, then you add a tenth picture about fisticuffs in recent months.  Then again, one might look at my work with The Legionnaire as excessive.  To that I would say that one man’s passion is another person’s obsession.  I feel this statement is a good way of backing into today’s review.

Though the opening credits of Raging Bull show Jake LaMotta (Robert DeNiro) shadow boxing in the ring, the first scene might mislead you.  This is because the movie is based on the life of the real Jake LaMotta, who had a varied career.  You get a sense of that from the outset.  It is after his fighting days are over, and an overweight Jake is rehearsing a routine for the stage.  The rest of the movie is told in flashback as we go back to the 1940s and the beginning of his career as a middleweight.  We see him pummeling Jimmy Reeves (Floyd Anderson) as the clock is running out on the match.  When it is over, shockingly the judges give the fight to Reeves.  The crowd goes berserk believing the bout fixed.  For Jake, it is back home to his life in the Bronx.  At home, he frequently loses his temper with his wife Irma (Lori Anne Flax).  With a title like this one, you should not be surprised that this is the case.  Also, get ready for a lot of scenes like this one.  For now, the peacemaker is his brother, Joey LaMotta (Joe Pesci), and he gets Jake out of the house.  One of the places they go to in this predominantly Italian neighborhood is the local swimming pool.  This is where Jake meets Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), a teenaged girl who is well known in the neighborhood.  Please note that this is a polite way of describing a different kind of behavior.  Either way, it soon leads to him pursuing her, which is made easier by the fact that Irma leaves him.  Meanwhile, Jake’s boxing career gets going once more, and he is often winning.  During this period, he fights several matches against Sugar Ray Robinson (Johnny Barnes), which brings Jake a great deal of notoriety.  Still, the one thing he cannot shake is jealousy.  He is constantly believing that Vickie is cheating on him, interrogating her whenever she leaves his presence as to where he she has been.  Though Joey again tries to reason with him, Jake makes his brother promise to keep an eye on her.  Joey thinks this crazy until one evening at a club, he sees Vickie there without Jake, visiting an old friend of hers, Salvatore “Salvy Batts” (Frank Vincent).  Jake did not like Salvy Batts before he married Vickie, a fact of which Joey is well aware.  Thus, Joey tried to get Vikie to leave with him.  She refuses and Salvy Betts object, sending Joey into a rage of his own that ends with Joey beating up Salvy Batts.  Salvy Batts is connected to the mafia, and the local boss, Tommy Como (Nicholas Colasanto), intervenes.  This is not the only intervention of organized crime.  As Jake’s career progresses, the mob takes a greater interest in his fights.  Seeing his ability and skill, and the fact that few are willing to go against him, means the odds of anyone beating Jake are astronomically high.  For the criminal underworld, this is an opportunity to make money, and they lean on Jake to throw his next match.  While Jake wants to show his loyalty to the “family,” if you catch my drift, he does not go down for anyone.  The result is him allowing himself to get punched over-and-over until the fight is called.  This stubbornness continues at home, and he alienates Joey when Jake accuses his brother of sleeping with his wife.  Jake has no proof that this happened other than his paranoia.  It leads to an argument that turns physical, and spills over to Joey’s house as he is having dinner with his wife and children. Despite having her face bruised, Jake is able to convince Vickie to stay.  Also, he eventually gets the long-awaited title bout that he had been hoping to have for years.  He wins, which comes with more wealth and fame, but is soon after defeated one last time by Sugar Ray Robinson before finally retiring.  In doing so, Jake moves his family to Miami, Florida, where he opens a night club.  On the surface, everything seems good.  Yet, he stays out to late at his establishment and Vickie finally files for divorce.  Further, he is arrested when it comes out that he had served alcohol to a teenager.  In a panic, he tries to sell the jewels off his championship belt in order to raise the money he needs to post bail and stay out of jail.  Unfortunately, nobody can help him and he winds up behind bars.  After he gets out, he returns to the Bronx to continue performing on the stage as a night club host and comedian.  He tries to make amends with Joey, though he does not seem amenable.  Instead, we end with him alone, looking into the mirror and practicing a routine that seems to explain his life to himself.

Actually, there is one more bit in Raging Bull before the end credits roll, and that is a quote from St. John’s Gospel, chapter nine.  It is the story of the blind man that Jesus healed.  After he regains his sight, he presents himself to the priests in the Temple, who cannot believe that a sinner has had such a miracle occurred for him.  What the officials were doing is not believing what their eyes were telling them.  When you apply this to the movie, it can be said that Jake is choosing to remain blind, and it is rage that is doing it to him.  He seems to want to be mad at the world.  That is hard thing to do as a follower of Christ, particularly when He wants to redeem all of us.  Still, Jake’s character also speaks to the parts that God wants from us, namely his desire for love.  This is something that is written on the hearts of all of us from the moment of our conception, and it is what leads us to seek the Divine.  Unfortunately, our culture and society seem to do everything it can to lead us away from God and towards the things of the world that are destructive.  You see this again with Jake in his retirement.  He has everything he could possibly want, and yet it is not enough.  There is a moment I sympathize with Jake.  He is at his lowest point in the jail cell.  Everyone close to him has abandoned him.  As the cell door shuts behind him, he has that moment of realization that brings into focus the enormity of his errors, and he breaks down.  It is good to do that before God.  The trick is letting Him, and not society, build you back up.  I cannot say that Jake does this, but acknowledging sin is important.

Raging Bull is a difficult film to watch.  It is done in black and white, which was a stylistic decision by director Martin Scorsese in order to make it look like old newsreel footage.  It is also bloody, violent, and vulgar.  If you can handle these things, then it is a solid piece of cinema.  As a Catholic, I am somewhat disappointed by them not showing more of the parish scenes.  A parish was the lifeblood of the neighborhoods you see in the film, and the brief glimpse is less than satisfying.  Otherwise, the performances are great, which is why you would watch it.


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