It dwindled in production hell for quite some time, with Scorsese's drug use halting production and only the duo's strong willpower that kept the project moving ahead. It was after De Niro read boxer Jake LaMotta's memoirs that he knew he wanted to make the film, so Scorsese and De Niro turned to Paul Schrader for a script. Schrader, who had previously written "Taxi Driver" (1976), agreed, and wrote the screenplay for them. The rest is history.
"Raging Bull" has often been regarded as the greatest film of the 80s. To be honest, I'm not so sure about that, since various genres offer different feelings and emotions (comparing this to a comedy might seem rather silly). But to say it is one of the most powerful films of all time would be no gross overstatement -- it is superb film-making at its finest.
De Niro gained 60 pounds to play LaMotta, which was an all-time record at the time (later beaten by Vincent D'Onofrio, who gained 70 pounds for Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket"). His physical transformation is on-par with any great screen makeover, especially the most recent, ranging from Willem Dafoe in "Shadow of the Vampire" to Charlize Theron in "Monster." In addition, co-star Joe Pesci also lost weight for his role of Joey, LaMotta's short, eccentric brother. The greatest scene in the film is when LaMotta accuses his brother of having an affair with his wife. The tension is raw, the dialogue amazing, and the overall intensity electrifying.
The film is most often compared to "Rocky," more than any other, apparently because they both concern a certain level of boxing. As much as I absolutely adore "Rocky," "Raging Bull" is a deeper, more realistic film. But whereas "Raging Bull" is raw, "Rocky" is inspiring, and that is one of the reasons I do not think these two very different motion pictures deserve comparison, for the simple fact that they are entirely separate from one another. The only connecting thread is the apparently central theme of boxing, which is used as a theme in "Rocky," and a backdrop in "Raging Bull." They're entirely different motion pictures -- one uplifting, the other somewhat depressing -- and the people who try to decide which is better need to seriously re-evaluate their reasons for doing so. They both succeed splendidly well at what they are trying to do, and that's all I have to say about their so-called connection.
De Niro, who could justifiably be called the greatest actor of all time, is at the top of his game here. In "Taxi Driver" he displayed a top-notch performance. He wasn't just playing Travis Bickle -- he was Travis Bickle. And here he is Jake LaMotta, the infamous boxer known for his abusive life style and somewhat paranoid delusions during his reign as world middleweight boxing champion, 1949 - 1951. Throughout the film, he beats his wife (played expertly and convincingly by the 19-year-old Cathy Moriarty), convinced that she is cheating on him, and that is more or less what the film is truly about. The boxing is just what he does for a living, and could be considered as a way to release some of his deeper, harbored anger.
LaMotta has a close relationship with Joey, his brother, and their interaction is often what elevates the film above others of its genre. The dialogue is great, close to the perfection of Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction," rich in that rapid-fire filthy language and brutal insults. Pesci, who was on the verge of quitting showbiz at the time of pre-production, was spotted by De Niro in a cheap B-movie named "The Death Collector" (1975), a.k.a. "Family Business," a truly horrid film that nevertheless showcased an early sign of things to come for Pesci. De Niro wanted him for the movie and his premonition was either very lucky or very wise -- this is one of the best performances of Pesci's entire career.
Scorsese shot the film in muted black and white, portraying a certain era of depression and misery. To make the blood show up on screen during the occasional fight scenes, Scorsese used Hershey's Syrup -- which is an interesting tidbit of trivia for any aspiring film-making planning on filming a violent movie in black and white. But how often does that happen?
This is certainly one of the most intense films Scorsese has directed, and one of the most important of his career. Along with "Taxi Driver," it is an iconic motion picture that will stand the test of time for years and years to come.
Scorsese and De Niro's partnership over the years has resulted in some of the most influential and utterly amazing motion pictures of all time: "Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver," "The King of Comedy," "Goodfellas" and "Casino" come to mind almost instantly. But perhaps the one single title that will be remembered as their most daring effort is "Raging Bull," a motion picture so utterly exhilarating that it defies description. It is simply a masterpiece for the mind and senses, leaving you knocked out cold after its brutal one-two punch. If I had to assemble a list of required viewing, this would be up there towards the top.