The other night, my wife and I sat down to watch the new 30th Anniversary Blu-ray edition of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. I could scarcely believe it’s been three decades since we first saw it, start to finish, and I felt some trepidation, as I always do when revisiting a great movie of the past: will it hold up or disappoint after all this time?
Rest assured, Raging Bull is every bit as vibrant—and searing—as it was the day it debuted in 1980. Scorsese dares to take his time, adopting an almost relaxed pace as we get to know Jake La Motta (played by an extraordinary Robert De Niro), his brother and partner Joey (a perfectly cast Joe Pesci), and the beautiful woman named Vickie (a remarkably poised Cathy Moriarty) who catches his eye and becomes his wife. The cumulative effect of these scenes, punctuated by La Motta’s punishing prizefights, is devastating. The sequences in the ring, photographed in stunning black & white by Michael Chapman, are in a class by themselves. I normally have difficulty with movies that present an unsympathetic protagonist, but Raging Bull is the—
—exception to the rule: Jake is something of a monster, but he’s also his own worst enemy. That’s what makes him human, and so interesting.
New interviews with De Niro, Scorsese, and producer Irwin Winkler chronicle the gestation of this production. It was De Niro who made it his passion project, after reading Jake La Motta’s autobiography; he had to persuade Scorsese to take it on. In a separate interview with the always-captivating director, he talks about the New York City milieu he knew so well and strove to capture on film—including long, narrow hallways often lit by bare light bulbs, a touchstone image of his urban youth.
In other interesting featurettes, former fighters and boxing buffs recall the real La Motta, and four contemporary filmmakers (Kimberly Peirce, Richard Kelly, Neil LaBute, and Scott Cooper) discuss what impresses them so much about Raging Bull.
The new Blu-ray release retains the special features that have been part of earlier home video releases, including the first commentary track I ever remember listening to—on laserdisc—with Scorsese dissecting the movie scene by scene, in some cases shot by shot. This in itself is a master class. (There are now three separate commentary tracks, featuring the filmmaker and many of his colleagues, including longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who, I seem to recall, had to hand-splice the faux color home-movie footage into every release print of the picture back in 1980.)
For Raging Bull, time has stood still, but in the best way: it is as contemporary, and as potent, as ever, and its visceral power is unmatched by anything I’ve watched in a long, long time.
One footnote: I’ve been a slow adopter when it comes to Blu-ray. Every time I see a demonstration I’m impressed, yet at home, on my 50-inch television, I don’t discern a tangible difference between a Blu-ray and a newly-remastered DVD of a given title. I even checked Raging Bull against the last DVD release, from 2005. I’m told that larger sets, and projection screens, reveal the difference in definition…but I’m still not ready to replace my DVD collection.