Friday, March 16, 2012

#4 RAGING BULL (1980)

What if Rocky was a giant fucking asshole?

Plot summary (with spoilers): Jake LaMotta is a boxer in 1941. He's a gritty black and writer scrapper with little to live for and less to lose. He's got a wife who he screams at and a little brother who he bullies, by badgering him to hit him as hard as he can and then laughing at his efforts. His brother Joey is also his manager, and Joey tries to schmooze the local made men in order to get Jake a shot at the middleweight championship title. Jake sees fifteen-year old Vickie at the neighborhood public pool, and is smitten. He wants to know if Joey's seen her before. Yeah, she's a neighborhood girl. Has she been around? Have you banged her? No, Joey hasn't banged her. He tried, but she wasn't interested.
So Joey sets up an introduction and Jake asks Vickie if she wants to go for a ride in his car and she does indeed want to go for a ride in his car and they ride all the way back to Jake's apartment and then ride some more. It's kind of a hot scene. (And Cathy Moriarty was 19, so it's fine).
Jake eventually leaves his wife and marries Vickie and starts to move up a bit in the boxing world. He beats Sugar Ray Leonard the first time, and in a rematch, the decision goes to Sugar Ray, even though Jake and Joey are convinced they just gave it to him because he's going off to war.
Joey attempts to use his mob contact Salvy to get Jake a meeting with the big mob guy Tommy, who decides who gets to fight for the Middleweight belt.
Then everyone's at some fancy nightclub, and Salvy approaches Vickie and kisses her on the cheek as Jake sits at a table with Joey and glowers. Then Salvy takes Vickie over to meet mob boss Tommy--HOLY SHIT, IT'S COACH!  FROM CHEERS! IN A SCORSESE MOVIE!   The great Nicholas Colasanto. I've been rewatching Cheers on Netflix, and he's just great. Such a funny, sweet character.
Anyway, where was I?
Oh yeah, Jake sees Vickie talking to Salvy and Coach and gets more and more jealous and pissed off. He harasses her about it later, and slaps her in the face. Joey tries to convince Jake that she's not stepping out on him, but Jake "knows" otherwise. He just needs proof.
Meanwhile, Joey gets him a match with Billy Fox, a match that Coach tells him he's supposed to lose. In the ring, Jake hits the guy once and he almost falls over, causing Jake to comically reach for him to help him up. Then the guy just hits Jake over and over without so much as making Jake flinch, until finally the referee gives the other guy the win on a technical knock-out. But then the board of boxing people or whatever gives Jake a suspension because it's so clear he threw the fight.  Now without even boxing to sublimate his anger issues, Jake gets even more jealous and suspicious of Vickie, and smacks her around some more and is even more of a dick. Vickie confronts Joey at the nightclub and says she wants out of the relationship, and Joey tries to defend Jake. Vickie storms out, and Joey confronts Salvy, blaming him for Jake's paranoia about Vickie's infidelity, because that fucking makes sense somehow and Joey beats on Salvy until the goombas tear him away (and we finally get to see a bit of our favorite kind of Joe Pesci, the psycho kind).
Coach calls Joey and Salvy in for a dressing down and writes them up and gives the required paperwork to HR and then tells Joey that his brother's a loose canon and will never achieve the big time if he keeps acting out.
By 1949 though, Jake's been minding his p's and q's, kissing Coach's ass and kowtowing when he needs to, and he gets a shot at the middleweight belt and wins. Afterwards at the house, Coach and Salvy come over to celebrate, and when they leave, Coach kisses Vickie goodbye on the lips, which causes Jake to fly into a rage (after Coach has left, of course). Joey tries to defend Vickie but Jake says he's had it with both of them.
Afterwards, Jake starts eating a lot, getting a pot belly. Joey warns him he won't be able to defend his belt if he gets too out of shape. Suddenly, Jake wants to talk about what happened last year.
What was that?
Oh, you know, when you fought with Salvy. What was that about? What were you fighting about?
The scene is a materclass of great writing and great acting coming together to form one of the most tension-filled scenes in all of cinema. Joey dances around the topic and lies in a totally believable way, evading the main question and using the truth (Jake's paranoid and jealous) to distract from the greater truth (Joey also suspected Vickie at one time). If you've ever had to manipulate someone more powerful than you, you know exactly the dance Joey is dancing, and it's beautiful. Then Jake says he'll believe Joey when he says the fight had nothing to do with Vickie, but if he ever finds out otherwise, he'll kill Salvy. Joey's pissed: Why don't you do that now? Kill Salvy, kill Tommy, kill me, kill everyone!
Jake wants to know why he said "kill me".
You know, because you want to kill everyone!  Because you're driving me nuts!  Just kill me, put me out of my misery!
But why did you include yourself with Salvy and Tommy?
I don't know!
Did you fuck my wife?
Joey makes the tactical decision to refuse to answer, citing great offense at the question. This is not the tactical decision I would have made.
And the real bitch of it is, did he?
It escalates from there. Joey makes a hasty retreat. Jake goes upstairs, screams at Vickie. He demands to know if she fucked his brother. She makes the tactical decision to sarcastically say yes, she banged everyone on the block. Again, a dubious tactical decision, in my opinion. If there is a raging bull in your bedroom, don't wave a red flag at it. He pushes her down, then stomps downstairs and out the door. She follows, begging him to stop. He storms right into Joey's house, and starts beating the shit out of him, in front of his wife and kids. Vickie and Joey's wife try to pull Jake off of him, and Jake turns around and belts Vickie in the face with a closed fist, then walks back out of the house.
The next morning, Vickie returns home with a giant bruise on her cheek. She makes a big show of packing up her bags. Jake is conciliatory and all weepy and gross and she relents almost immediately and they hug and then they go make an album together.
A few months later, Jake defends his middleweight belt, and is beaten to a bloody pulp. He never goes down, but the ref calls the fight against him on a technical knockout. Jake calls Joey afterwards, but Joey just curses at him and Jake hangs up.
It is now 1964. Jake is big and fat and runs a nightclub downtown. He takes to the stage and does a pathetic stand-up routine that embarrass Larry the Cable Guy with its low-brow pandering, and then proceeds to make the rounds of the club, leering at all the young ladies and basically being that skeezy old fat guy in the bar you hope doesn't hit on you. Some people ask him where his wife is, and Jake "jokes" that he wouldn't let his wife near all these lascivious men. The bartender tells him that several girls are trying to buy liquor even though they don't have ID. Jake asks them how old they are. They say 21. Jake has them "prove" their age by grossly making out with him. He then gives them booze and introduces them to some fellow skeezball older men.
We see him out of the club, approaching Vickie who's in her car. He begs her to let him talk. She says she wants a divorce and they have nothing to talk about, then she drives off. The next morning, Jake's arrested for letting 14 year olds into his bar and serving them drinks and men. The cops hint that a bribe would make this all go away, so Jake takes his middleweight belt, and hammers out all the jewels and gold to hock. The pawn shop guy tells him that the belt itself as a whole would've been worth a hell of a lot more. Jake winds up serving a jail sentence. He punches the jail cell wall, weeping and screaming in fury.
After he's released, he happens upon Joey by chance in New York City. He follows Joey down the street, calling his name, begging him to turn around and talk to him. Joey ignores him at first, then finally turns around and allows Jake to hug and kiss him and beg his forgiveness.
In the final scene, Jake's prepping for another stand-up routine at some lonely club. He's looking into the mirror in the dressing room and proceeds to do the "I coulda been a contendah" scene from On the Waterfront. Then he jumps up and starts to shadowbox, before going out to meet his adoring crowd that consists only of people who don't really know him.

Review: There are certain types of movies that aren't really stories so much as Character Studies, and this is definitely the latter. As far as movie genres go, character studies aren't really my favorite. Give me 10 characters over one or two any day, and give me six complicated plotlines and intersecting stories and motivations rather than one guy doing a ton of emoting and not much else. Don't get me wrong, this is a very good movie, as good a movie as a character study can be, right up there with There Will Be Blood, but there's a ceiling for me on how good these movies can get. Like Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, Jake LaMotta is thoroughly unlikable and even repugnant and yet we can't take our eyes off him. DeNiro gives one of his patented flawless performances, giving Jake a humanity and even a crumb of sympathy where almost any other actor would've stumbled. The scene where he confronts Joey was so damn good, and there are easily half a dozen scenes just like that, brutal and intense and scary and sad all at the same time. It was great to see a subdued and not crazy Joe Pesci for once, too. Plus: Coach!
The movie ends with a quote from the bible, the one that ends with "I once was blind but now I see", which apparently was in reference to  Scorsese's film professor, who died during the making of this movie and to whom Scorsese dedicated it. Well, that's sweet and all, but doesn't have fuck all to do with anything we just watched. Jake receives no grace nor redemption, and can't "see" any better in the end of the movie than in the beginning, so I don't know why that was in there, frankly.

Stars: Four out of five.

Next, the two hills of beans play it again and have a beautiful friendship not today or tomorrow but for the rest of their lives.

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