Martin Scorsese's portrait of a toxic boxer remains a triumph of filmmaking verve, though its notions of masculinity grow tiresome
Two hours locked in a boxing ring with the worst dude you’ve ever met – and the crowd goes wild. Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull is back on our screens in a 4K remaster, each blood splatter and broken nose now more high-res than ever before. To watch it today is still a hair-raising and admittedly unpleasant experience. But considering all that lingers over its choice of protagonist as a queasy question mark, what prevails is how this film platforms actors and filmmakers operating at the zenith of their technical skill.
The film charts the not-quite rise and fall of boxer Jake LaMotta through the 1940s and 50s, memorably brought to life by Robert De Niro in a much-plaudited role. The editing, by the great Thelma Schoonmaker, is a masterclass in pace. The images we see are visceral and jaw-splintering; the sweat sprays off from the screen and into your agape mouth. Each punch, flashbulb photograph and insult hurled in a Bronx accent lands like a gloved punch to the chin. Michael Chapman’s black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous – a nitrogen bomb of chopped up celluloid, all shadows and purgatory and regret.
For all its beautiful directorial style, though, LaMotta is an embarrassing figure you almost can’t bear to watch: an open wound of toxic braggadocio. His punishing fall is entirely deserved, and even his moments of apparent tenderness really only arise during seduction, merely another form of manipulation. This is Madonna–Whore Complex: The Movie, with Cathy Moriarty’s thankless role of wife Vickie merely existing as a blank canvas upon which LaMotta can spray his venomous misogyny. It is all imagined cuckoldry and sexual neurosis – he refuses to satisfy his wife, then accuses her of cheating on him, all the while insulting his enemies in some form of jibe that involves someone being sodomized or someone fucking someone’s mother. It is exhausting to watch, because it is so stupid.
There’s something here that stops me from joining in the breathless chorus of “masterpiece!” that many bestow upon Raging Bull, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. My millennial sensibility suggests that it is tiresome to spend two hours with a man who would rather rape and beat people than go to therapy (being glib here, promise). My critical sensibility feels there’s a lack of focus. The central character is odious, sure, but also not all that complicated or interesting: a textbook loser who is good at being punched while staying stood up. The film’s emotional apex isn’t Jake breaking down in his jail cell, but comes from Joe Pesci, playing his brother, who appears at the end of the film only to cast a disparaging eye over the washed-up protagonist – the same expression etched on the audiences’ faces, too.
Raging Bull works beautifully when taken as a character study of a sad, small man crushed by biblical levels of self-expectation – this is a Paul Schrader script, after all – and maybe not so much as anything else. It’s not about boxing, or the Mafia, and it’s not even a biopic, really; it’s a nightmare. In her review, Pauline Kael wrote: “Jake says, 'You dumb f–ck,' and Joey says, 'You dumb f–k,' and they repeat it and repeat it. And I think. What am I doing here watching these two dumb f–ks?” It’s a sentiment I can’t help but wearily echo.
Perhaps there's no better film about the prison of cruelty that is machismo. Others might see Scorsese's depiction of toxic masculinity as somewhat dated, with today's notions of misogyny expanding to include online radicalization à la Andrew Tate. Maybe this is why the film fell so drastically in the most recent Sight & Sound critics’ poll – from 53rd place in 2012 to 129th in 2022. Whether you think the film is too violent or a display of brilliant, brutal brio, few are likely to disagree on Raging Bull's ferocious power. Either way: show me a hundred-hour reel of those boxing scenes on a loop. That’s entertainment.
Raging Bull is re-released in UK cinemas on 14 April.Where to watch