Hard to believe that it has been 30 years since Robert De Niro pulled the original Christian Bale method-acting-insanity trick and hung the health consequences to balloon in weight for the role of Jake 'The Bronx Bull' La Motta. But blu-ray boxes don't lie (pffft!), and this week's 30th Anniversary Special Edition Blu-Ray is pretty firm evidence.
But, can we start with the cover? The film features some of the most iconic images in cinematic history- one of which the Special Edition DVD cover took advantage of to such success- and yet this celebratory edition features a bloated close-up image that looks more like a bad wax-work of Sylvester Stallone. Bad decision.
For anyone who doesn't know the story, Raging Bull is effectively the filmic counter-point to films like The Wrestler and The Fighter. While they purport to be about complex humanist stories of redemption, they simply cannot contend in terms of emotional intrigue with a good old fashioned rise and fall story. And Raging Bull is the rise and fall story.
Scorsese's fourth mega-hit team-up with Robert De Niro (anyone who talks down the delightful New York New York is plainly wrong) is a jarring experience- the director seeks to mimic the emotional turmoil that his main character goes through for the audience, and the decision to film in black and white perfectly compliments that creative direction. Scorsese's stark black and white palette adds an extra level of depth, especially in the scenes in which De Niro implodes, and the film is so utterly involving that it is almost impossible to look away.
If the hyperbole-friendly brigade were to be believed, this film is the greatest performance by the Greatest Actor in the World Ever directed by the greatest director. Which makes it some kind of mega--beast of awesomeness. So, is this really De Niro's acting high-point? I'm not yet sure- I am completely mesmorised by a number of his more animalistic roles- particularly in Taxi Driver and Cape Fear, and yet some of his more gentle performances (The King of Comedy, Mad-Dog and Glory) are equally as fondly remembered. But there is definitely something more about Raging Bull.
His Jake La Motta is a near-perfect portrait of self-destruction, violent implosions manifesting themselves in brutal explosions of rage, all coddled in a shroud of fatal delusion that ostracises him from everyone who is initially close to him. Even though the performance will forever be remembered for the physical transformation De Niro put himself through, it is in fact one that is typified and defined by the emotional- the actor perfectly marries La Motta's repugnant and ignorant brutality with a resonant melancholy that makes him more of a tragic figure than an irredeemable monster.
We might not like La Motta- in fact it is almost impossible- but like a long strain of Scorsese anti-villain type characters, he is so compelling and his complexities so intriguingly presented that it is impossible to resist his fascinating charm.
For all the explosive intensity of De Niro's performance, the film is surprisingly nuanced and intelligently poised. It is at once a brutal and animalistic look at brutal masculinity (La Motta is crucially defined not only by violence, but also by vociferous sexuality), but it also plays out as subtly and gracefully as a ballet performance at times. Curiously, and ingeniously on Scorsese's part, it is the boxing sequences that look the most artful- Scorsese's presentation of the scenes seems fascinated by the dichotomy of the sport, the idea of such a brutal sport being governed by contrasting concepts like finesse and technique. Being the wonderfully adroit documentarian that he is (seriously, go and watch The Last Waltz), Scorsese finds the truth of the sport and draws it out in a manner that no other film about boxing has ever managed since, injecting poetry and majesty amongst the brutality.
It is, of course, a classic. If it isn't Scorsese's best it is somewhere very near. And if it isn't De Niro's best, the same can be said. And that is some heady praise indeed.
QUALITYGreat, great work. The transfer manages to be both a vast improvement on the DVD version, but also retains that tangible filmicness, with a perfect sheen of consistent grain, which is a big deal, considering the monochrome palette's unfortunate removal of one of the chief indicators of transfer quality- colour. The transfer is a triumph (especially since the source is 30 years old), with tonal levels and consistently really shouting up the impeccable aesthetic impression created by Scorsese's attention to light and shade.
With sound playing an even more important part in Raging Bull, to fill the identity vacuum created by the lack of colour that might have otherwise been more conspicuous, it is enormously pleasing to report that the sound quality almost matches that of the visuals. While it is generally quite quiet (a far more preferable start point than it being too loud like the recent Intolerable Cruelty audio track), everything is technically impressive. Dialogue is clean and crisp, even in scenes heavy with ambient noise, but it is the musical soundtrack that sparkles the most, and the added level of definition adds further enjoyment of Scorsese's impeccably chosen tracks.