Bruising, blistering, brilliant. Raging Bull roars onto 4K UHD with a brand new, Martin Scorsese-approved master that immerses us in the violent, animalistic world of prizefighter Jake La Motta like never before. Scorsese's brash yet poetic direction and Robert De Niro's bravura, Oscar-winning performance combine to create one of the finest films of the 20th century, and Criterion reverently honors it with an elegant release that includes a spectacular transfer enhanced by HDR10, lossless stereo audio, a mixture of old and new supplements, and a handsome 48-page booklet. Raging Bull is a masterpiece by a master craftsman and it belongs in every film fan's collection, especially in 4K UHD. Must Own.
It was like nothing I had ever seen... That was my initial reaction after watching Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull for the first time during its 1980 theatrical release. I was 18 and studying film history at Northwestern University, but the distinctive styles of such lauded auteurs as Hitchcock, Ford, and Hawks could not prepare me for Scorsese's riveting examination of Jake La Motta. The 37-year-old director told the searing tale of the brash, brutish boxer with such bold style and invention and so seamlessly combined grit and elegance, I knew I had just witnessed the work of a modern master.
Like La Motta, Scorsese pummels us with an almost non-stop barrage of breathtaking cinematic punches, but unlike the fighter's battered opponents, I exited the ring feeling exhilarated. Rarely, if ever, had I seen such total command of the medium, such muscular enthusiasm on screen, and I was awed by it. When Raging Bull lost that year's Best Picture Oscar to the fine but oh-so-mainstream family drama Ordinary People and the renegade Scorsese lost the Best Director award to first-timer and industry darling Robert Redford, my sense of outrage and disappointment knew no bounds. It certainly wasn't the first time the Academy got it wrong, but rarely did the oversight seem so glaring, the snub so overt. Once again, art lost to commerce, an edgy film fell to a safe one, and glossy upper-middle-class ideals beat the raw truth of the street. (As you can tell, it's been more than 40 years and I still haven't completely gotten over it.)
If you've read my previous reviews of Scorsese's films, you know I'm an unabashed, unapologetic fan, but even someone who's lukewarm about the director has to appreciate the supreme and undeniable artistry of Raging Bull. Is it a pleasant story? No. Are the characters vulgar and crass? Yes. You might not enjoy viewing the film from a narrative standpoint, but the construction, presentation, and attention to detail, not to mention the performances, make it a mesmerizing movie from start to finish. Even after four decades, the fight scenes, distinguished by quick edits, off-kilter angles, slow and fast motion photography, 180-degree sweeps, and indelible images of brutal, blood-spurting blows, retain their dazzling visual and visceral impact. Yet for every frame of swagger in Raging Bull, there's one of nuance. Such moments, on the surface, may seem like throwaway bits of exposition, but over repeated viewings they engender as much admiration as the flashy ones, because they're so natural.
At its core, Raging Bull is an agonizing study of self-destruction and, ultimately, survival. Blessed with superior ability, La Motta (Robert De Niro) bulldozes his way through the ranks to become a dominant force in the boxing arena, but outside the ring he's like a caged animal who struggles to contain his inner beast. A man of massive appetites - for food, sex, money, power, and respect - he indulges his vices while trying to maintain his athletic edge, but his pigheaded, abusive nature, Cro-Magnon ideals, and destructive mental demons (the most damaging of which are jealousy and paranoia) sabotage him at every turn. In the ring, it's often tough to determine whether he's fighting his opponent or fighting himself, and the battles he wages aren't always for titles and glory; they're often to prove a private point, appease the mob, or serve as a warped form of self-flagellation for the reckless and hurtful way he's lived his life.
From the opening title sequence - slow-motion, long-shot footage of a sparring De Niro with classical music underscoring - Scorsese sets the tone. This is a grand story, operatic in scope and structure, one of majesty and tragedy. It begins with an overweight, grotesque La Motta rehearsing a monologue in his nightclub dressing room in 1964. Then the clock rolls back to 1941, and we see the lean, mean Jake, the young bull in his prime, rarin' to go, anxious to pound another human's flesh until it bleeds. His loyal brother Joey (Joe Pesci) works tirelessly to promote and protect him, but it's a thankless task, while a comely, platinum-blonde 15-year-old named Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) catches Jake's eye, and he leaves his wife Irma (Lori Anne Flax) to pursue her. Sexually, they're a combustible combination, and emotionally, she's a fiercer adversary than some of the patsies he fights in the ring, yet his lack of trust and innate insecurities take a devastating toll on their relationship.
Raging Bull is often crude and in-your-face, but it's also poetic and eloquent in a way few films are. Scorsese masterfully merges the boxing and domestic sequences, giving us a firm grasp on La Motta's conflicting universes. The black-and-white photography - which always looks realistic, never stylized - and striking period detail allow him to flawlessly evoke the 1940s and '50s, and in a stroke of genius, he uses color film stock just once during a brief home-movie sequence to heighten the humanity of his characters and remind us they are, in fact, real people. Scorsese also employs still images to add impact, and pushes the erotic envelope with an extreme close-up love scene that further emphasizes Jake's animalism.
Long before DiCaprio, De Niro was Scorsese's actor of choice, and though the pair have made a number of excellent films together, Raging Bull is their crowning collaborative achievement. De Niro gives everything he has to the role, ballooning to an almost unrecognizable size to believably represent the obese, middle-aged Jake and inspiring a generation of actors to transform themselves for the sake of their art. His fierce portrayal, however, is so much more than massive weight gain. De Niro embodies La Motta, embracing his brutality, ego, and unrefined charm, yet despite the part's showy nature, the actor's finest moments are ones of quiet introspection and painful regret, and it's a tribute to De Niro's uncompromising work that we don't end up pitying Jake; we see him merely for what he is and admire his ability to survive.
Pesci, as always, makes a terrific foil for De Niro, but here seems less manic and more genuine than he would in future roles. The real surprise, though, is Moriarty, whose Oscar-nominated work I have come to more fully appreciate over the years. Her sullen, pouty attitude, feline sexuality, and fiery temper bring Vickie to brilliant life, and even her nonchalant, throwaway line readings complement her character. For someone with no previous acting experience, it's quite a performance.
And Raging Bull is quite a film. Artistic, influential, often gut-wrenching, it pushed a generation of moviemakers to new heights and opened audience's eyes to the medium's true capabilities. Over the years, Scorsese's style has been copied and technology has given directors more freedom to realize their fantastic visions, so those new to Raging Bull may wonder what all the fuss is about. But lest we forget, like the movie's tortured hero, Raging Bull is an American original, a robust, visually stunning portrait of fury and passion by one of the finest directors the film industry has ever produced. It may not have received the gold statuette from the Academy, but it sets the gold standard, and always will be considered a masterpiece.
Vital Disc Stats: The Ultra HD Blu-ray
Raging Bull arrives on 4K UHD packaged in a standard Criterion case. Both a 4K UHD disc and standard Blu-ray disc are included. A 48-page booklet featuring essays by poet Robin Robertson and film critic Glenn Kenny, black-and-white scene stills and production photos, a cast and crew listing, and transfer notes is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec for the 4K UHD disc is 2160p/HEVC H.265 with HDR10; for the Blu-ray disc, it's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4. Audio for both discs is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 surround. Once the discs are inserted into the player, the full-motion menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
The liner notes state, "Approved by director Martin Scorsese, this new master was created in 4K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director film scanner from the 35 mm original camera negative." The resulting 2160p/HEVC H.265 transfer with HDR10 boasts astounding clarity without sacrificing an organic filmic appearance. Like many Ultra HD renditions of classic films, grain is more apparent - you'll certainly notice it in the opening title sequence - but I was surprised and delighted by how many solid light backgrounds exhibit no noise whatsoever. Some scenes flaunt more softness and texture than others, but the overall presentation seamlessly combines silky elegance with stark grit to maximize the visceral impact of Michael Chapman's naturalistic, Oscar-nominated cinematography.
Details are crystal clear. The sweat droplets clinging to the boxers' faces, shoulders and chests exude a marvelous dimensionality; the pores on De Niro's nose, delicate freckles on Moriarty's cheeks, and tiny blemishes that dot everyone's faces are easy to discern; and faint wallpaper patterns, the wear-and-tear on walls, the texture of terry cloth robes and towels, swirling cigarette smoke, and miniscule bits of sweat that pop like fireworks off the fighters' chins after they're punched are all wonderfully distinct. (The famous shot of Jake's blood dripping off the worn boxing ring rope has never looked more real.) Superior contrast and shadow delineation bring dingy interiors to life, while on the flip side, the bright artificial light that bathes the fight sequences never washes out the image. Rich blacks produce lush shadows, the vibrant whites remain stable throughout, and a varied grayscale adds essential contours and enhances depth. If all that is not enough, the razor-sharp close-ups make the boxing bouts even grislier, make the sex scene between De Niro and Moriarty more erotic, and heighten Moriarty's allure. The Technicolor home movie sequence looks appropriately rough, worn, and a bit blurry, but the hues are vivid and flesh tones are true.
The source material is spotless, too. The few nicks and marks that dotted the 30th anniversary disc do not appear here, and that means nothing diverts our attention from the dazzling and disturbing images on screen. Though the 2011 Blu-ray transfer still holds up well, this new 4K UHD transfer with HDR10 is a definite improvement, and if you admire Raging Bull as much as most of us do, an upgrade is most certainly in order, if not essential.
The Raging Bull soundtrack has always been vigorous, nuanced...and frustrating. Dialogue comprehension has always been the audio's albatross due to the actors' naturalistic speaking style (a.k.a. mumbling). Authentic? Yes, but it requires viewers to really prick up their ears to catch all the verbal exchanges. This Criterion edition ditches the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track from the 30th anniversary Blu-ray and replaces it with a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 surround track that may or may not be the same as the Dolby Surround track included on the 2011 release. According to the liner notes, "The original 2.0 surround soundtrack was remastered from the 35 mm three-track magnetic track." Whether new or old, the track supplies clear, crisp sound that immerses us in the period atmosphere without any age-related anomalies.
Sonic accents like popping flashbulbs, barking dogs, a woman's shriek, shattering glass, the roar of the crowd, pummeling punches, and the thuds of bodies falling on the mat are wonderfully distinct, but it's the subtleties constantly shading the action - a background radio, distant el train, faint sirens, a creaky chair, street noise, the din of a crowded restaurant, and dripping rain - that really impress and add essential atmosphere to the tale. (It's not surprising the film nabbed an Oscar nod for Best Sound.) Dynamic range is quite good, but some bass frequencies occasionally flirt with distortion. Solid fidelity enhances the impact of the music score and mild stereo separation across the front channels provides an expansive but not enveloping soundscape that delivers excitement while maintaining intimacy.
There's a lot of aural activity vying for our attention, and as a result, sometimes the effects shroud bits of the soft-spoken dialogue, which could benefit from better prioritization. Generally speaking, conversations are comprehendible; you just might have to strain to hear some of them. That's nothing new for Raging Bull, and this otherwise excellent track can't be faulted for it.
Some, but not all of the extras from the 30th anniversary Blu-ray release have been ported over to this Criterion edition. "The Bronx Bull" and "Raging Bull: Reflections on a Classic" featurettes, "De Niro vs. La Motta: Shot for Shot" comparison, 1981 Cathy Moriarty Tonight Show interview, and the newsreel footage of La Motta in action are all gone, but Criterion compensates for those deletions with some new video essays and rare vintage material. The commentaries can be accessed on both the 4K UHD and Blu-ray discs, but the rest of the supplements reside only on the Blu-ray disc.
Audio Commentaries – Three commentaries grace the disc, offering varying perspectives on this complex film. There's something for everyone here, and whether you listen to them all in their entirety or sample bits and pieces from each, you'll certainly be educated and enlightened. Few films deserve more than one commentary, but Raging Bull does, and fans of this film should take the time to experience them all.
The first features Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker (recorded separately), both of whom offer plenty of information about the shooting of the film, the script, locations, and various technical issues. Scorsese points out the moment when De Niro broke Pesci's rib during a sparring sequence, discusses the casting of Cathy Moriarty, dissects the fight scenes, and analyzes Jake's character, while Schoonmaker addresses the sensuality that pervades Scorsese's work, the impact of the movie's sound, the lengthy Steadicam shot that would be a precursor to a more famous one in GoodFellas, how the home movie sequence was constructed to look antiquated and realistic, and the particulars of her working relationship with Scorsese.
The second commentary contains remarks from producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, actors Theresa Saldana and John Turturro, sound engineer Frank Warner, cinematographer Michael Chapman, music advisor Robbie Robertson, and casting director Cis Corman. Turturro's comments are especially charming, as he recalls his first appearance on film as an unbilled, glorified extra who sits at a nightclub table with De Niro and Pesci in one scene. Chapman chats about the challenges of shooting in black-and-white; Winkler and Chartoff credit the success of Rocky with paving the way for Raging Bull; Robertson quips that you can almost "smell the tomato sauce" coming off the Italian music; Saldana notes she originally auditioned for the role of Jake's first wife and talks about Scorsese's intimate directing style; Corman relates the challenge of finding the right Vickie and how she groomed the green Moriarty for the role; and Warner discusses how he manipulated and layered multiple sounds to make a single effect. All the participants make interesting observations, sharing anecdotes, describing their respective jobs and contributions, and recalling the creative energy that permeated the production. The differing perspectives keep the track involving and chugging along at a good clip.
The final commentary features the raging bull himself, Jake La Motta, along with his nephew, Jason Lustig (who acts as an interviewer), and screenwriters Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin (both recorded separately). La Motta, of course, is a fascinating figure, and it's a treat to hear him speak for himself, psychoanalyze himself, and reminisce about his background, personal life, and career. Through his remarks, we get a marvelous sense of his gregarious personality, and he shares captivating memories about his childhood, brother Joey, wife Vickie, and rival Sugar Ray Robinson. He also talks about his aversion to sex (or more specifically, orgasm) before fights, reflects on his jealousy regarding Vickie, pressures from the mafia, the fight he purposely (and regretfully) threw, and the title bout that meant so much to him. He tells a few jokes, too, recites the On the Waterfront monologue used in the movie, and perhaps most revelatory of all (considering the film's abundance of foul language) professes that he doesn't use cuss words! Mardik talks about the challenge of "reaching for the truth" when adapting someone's life story, sifting through the exaggerations and tall tales that surrounded La Motta, the arduous task of developing the first draft of the script, Scorsese's initial disinterest in the project, and how actors seem to love to use the f-word on screen as often as possible. Schrader recalls how he became involved in Raging Bull, the aspects of the story that stoked his passion, and some notable changes in the script.
Feature-Length Documentary: "Raging Bull: Fight Night" (SD, 83 minutes) – Divided into four parts (which can be viewed individually, if desired), this comprehensive, well-made 2004 documentary touches upon every aspect of the film's production and features interviews with all the essential creative personnel - Scorsese, De Niro, Pesci, Moriarty, screenwriter Paul Schrader, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler. The first installment deals with the movie's genesis - De Niro's passion for the project, script development, financing, and casting. Moriarty's comments are especially interesting, as she describes how she landed the role of Vickie and the lessons she learned from the film. The second part takes an in-depth look at the filming of the fight scenes and the decision to shoot in black-and-white, while the third segment examines the scenes outside the ring, the actors' improvisations, De Niro's 60-pound weight gain, and how some critical editing saved the picture after a disappointing preview. The final section looks at the film's violence, sound effects, music, the laborious task of mixing, the lukewarm reviews Raging Bull initially received, and the effect the movie had on the lives of the people who made it. Anyone who appreciates Raging Bull will be enthralled by this fascinating, must-see documentary.
NEW Video Essay: "Pour Everything In: An Ode to Raging Bull" (HD, 25 minutes) - Film critic and poet Geoffrey O'Brien wrote and narrates this insightful and well-constructed tribute to the film. O'Brien analyzes Scorsese's vigorous style, the movie's innovative structure, and how Scorsese "instills a state of maximal alertness." Occasional black screens force us to focus on the dialogue instead of the images, while occasional muted audio allows us to revel in the arresting visuals. In addition, O'Brien dissects the swimming pool scene and graphic boxing sequences and puts the constant barrage of violence in context.
NEW Video Essay: "Gloves Off: The Actor Triumverate of Raging Bull" (HD, 18 minutes) - Film critic Sheila O'Malley examines the movie's three central performances - De Niro, Pesci, and Moriarty - and how they coexist on screen. She breaks down several scenes, gets under the characters' skins, and puts De Niro's work under a microscope. She also points out how De Niro's emphasis on a single word in the film's final moments provides a key to his interpretation of Jake's character.
Featurette: "Marty and Bobby" (HD, 14 minutes) - The legendary pair examine their relationship and some of the films they made together, but focus primarily on Raging Bull. De Niro discusses his weight gain and empathy for La Motta, while Scorsese talks about the project's development and how he shot the fight scenes. Producer Irwin Winkler also weighs in with his impressions and shares background information on the production. Rare rehearsal footage and film clips round out this interesting 2010 piece.
Featurette: "Marty on Film" (HD, 10 minutes) - Also from 2010, this highly interesting autobiographical portrait of Scorsese affords the director the opportunity to discuss his attraction to film, how it influenced him, the movie industry, boxing, indelible images and memories from his childhood, and what he'd like to do professionally in the future.
Vintage Audio Interview: "Robert De Niro on Acting" (15 minutes) - In these excerpts from a 1980 Harold Lloyd Master Seminar recorded at the American Film Institute, De Niro talks about how he "finds" character bits, how rehearsal can help the script evolve, how camera angles affect performances, and the trust and symbiosis he and Scorsese share.
Vintage Jake La Motta Interview (SD, 6 minutes) - Portions of a 1990 interview with La Motta in which he amusingly recalls fighting as a 5-year-old kid to prove his toughness on Manhattan's Lower East Side and ending up in the same reform school with boyhood pal Rocky Graziano are interspersed with silent footage of his fights. La Motta also opines about America's love affair with the underdog, explains his reluctance to "take a dive" (throw a fight), admits he initially didn't like Raging Bull, and reveals how difficult it was to change his life and get "rid of that animalistic thing I had in me."
Featurette: "Remembering Jake" (HD, 11 minutes) - Members of the Veterans Boxers Association share their impressions of the champion prizefighter. They recall La Motta's famous bouts, rough personality traits, sense of humor, and relate some personal reminiscences in this intimate 2010 featurette.
Vintage Television Interview: Cathy Moriarty and Vikki La Motta (SD, 8 minutes) - In 1981, Moriarty and La Motta's ex-wife Vikki sat down for an absorbing interview with Belgian television. Vikki talks about how Jake's gentle personality changed over time, the issues that led to their divorce, how he was forced to rehabilitate himself after he lost everything, and how Scorsese sought her input prior to and during the film's production. Moriarty admits she had never heard of Jake La Motta before she was approached to do the film, denies reports that she was both a model and friend of Joe Pesci before she was cast, and dispels rumors that De Niro is "difficult" on the set.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2 minutes) - The film's beautifully constructed original preview completes this extensive extras package.
I said it 11 years ago and I stand by it today. Raging Bull remains a remarkable cinematic achievement, an unqualified triumph for director Martin Scorsese and actor Robert De Niro, and one of the finest films of the 20th century. Though it may not appeal to all tastes, this complex portrait of a tortured boxer packs solid punches on a number of levels. All the pieces of the puzzle - cinematography, editing, sound, screenplay, music, performances, and direction - snugly interlock to create a dazzling experience that grows richer and more meaningful with each viewing. And in the splendor of 4K UHD with HDR10, Raging Bull is more mesmerizing and visceral than ever before. The new Scorsese-approved 4K master bests any previous home video transfer and the new extras provide fresh perspectives and vintage insights into this modern masterpiece. You might want to hang onto your previous Blu-ray for a few supplements that haven't been ported over, but if you're even a casual admirer of one of Scorsese's best films, an upgrade is mandatory. Must Own.