As I sit down to write this, my first impulse is to proclaim Raging Bull Martin Scorsese’s greatest film. However, that would be completely unfair. I’m driven to do that just because I just finished watching it. If I declared Raging Bull Scorsese’s best, were would that leave Taxi Driver (1976), Goodfella’s (1990), Cape Fear (1991), Casino (1995), The Departed (2006) and others? One thing is certain, even though I’m not a fan of boxing; Raging Bull remains one of the most affecting film biographies I have ever seen. And as good as Ordinary People was, I remained stymied as to how this classic picture was denied the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Raging BullHeaven knows there have been countless films made about various sports, including boxing. Scorsese himself wasn’t a boxing fan and not particularly interested in making Raging Bull. However, a near-death experience from a drug overdose convinced Scorsese to do the film for Robert De Niro, who had agreed to star if Martin would direct. Scorsese felt that he could relate to La Motta if he focused on the fighter’s everyman quality…have the ring become an allegory of life. That’s what makes Raging Bull an undeniable classic; yes, boxing is part of it, but in the larger sense, the film is the inspection of a deeply complex and troubled man. Scorsese tells the detailed and gripping story of La Motta’s rise to the top and meteoric downfall.

From the opening credits, you get the sense you’re in for something special. Jake La Motta (De Niro) moves around a well lit black and white boxing ring. In the way that opening shot is approached, the audience already gets the basic idea that La Motta’s entire life revolves around the idea of a fight, both inside and outside the ring. Anger drives him, anger sustains him.

Raging Bull begins with an aging La Motta rehearsing his shtick for a nightclub. Then it’s flashback time, and we’re transported to the fight in Cleveland at the beginning of the Forties when a riot breaks out after the refs awarded the fight to La Motta’s opponent, though Jake had knocked the guy around pretty good. Through that publicity, Jake becomes known across the country. Then we skip to the Bronx, 1941. The story focuses on the relationship between Jake and his brother Joey (Joe Pesci) and we see the two hanging out and witness a lot of friction between Jake and his first wife.

Then one day, he sees a young girl at a municipal swimming pool and finds himself transfixed by her. Eventually, Jake marries the fifteen-year-old Vickie (Cathy Moriarity) and becomes consumed by the idea that she is cheating on him. He is an abusive and possessive husband; Scorsese doesn’t hold much back here, showing a very nasty side of the man. La Motta’s abuse wasn’t reserved just for his wife but also to his brother, Joey. At one point in the film, Jake assumes Joey has had an affair with Vickie. Jake goes on a rampage and shows up at his brother’s house to give him a beating as he’s having dinner with his wife and kids. While the scene is brutal, Scorsese directed it in such a way that you can’t help but be captivated. He makes you believe that each of these characters is a real person.

Much has been said and written about De Niro’s performance in Raging Bull. There has always been particular concentration on his weight gain. While that was admirable, it’s the fact that De Niro seemed to so fully immerse himself in the role that makes Jake La Motta one of the actor’s best portrayals of his career. In one of his first big film roles, Pesci is great as the slightly more respectable brother, trying to keep Jake’s rage in check and ultimately seeing the futility of his efforts.

Cathy Moriarity, not yet twenty at the time of film is perfect as Vickie. As Jake’s emotionally and physically abused wife, Moriarity plays Vickie as an interesting mixture of teenager, survivor and slut. She’s beautiful to look at but the pain she feels at the expense of her husband’s abuse is apparent in her face, in the way she moves. Such heartfelt work by an actress in her first film is amazing.

Scorsese did a masterful job at developing each character and deeply involving them in every situation in Jake’s life. The director’s perspective as a boxing outsider gives the film an unbiased and brutally honest look into La Motta’s life. It would have been easy for someone to make a film about what a great fighter Jake was, about how he never gave up in the ring. That story would have been appreciated but it wouldn’t have been the full story. What Scorsese did so well, was to break down the story of everything La Motta went through and reconstruct it. The result is one of the finest biopics ever filmed.

Raging Bull is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen using the AVC MPEG-4 codec on a dual-layered BD50 disc. Michael Chapman’s brilliant cinematography has never looked better than it does here, in this stark, crisp, textured BD release that restores Raging Bull to its original cinematic glory. Depth and details are wonderful. Black levels are vibrant. Whites are perfectly leveled, never too gray or muted. This is a nearly flawless transfer, only marred perhaps by the intentional sheen of grain that envelops the print giving it life and gravity — but that’s only if you’re not a fan of what grain does to a film.

The encode itself is clean with just a slight hint of artifacting during one or two of the fights. The print is also free of any dust or dirt. If you want to own the best transfer of this film on home video, this disc is it.

Audio choices are English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, English Dolby Stereo 2.0, French DTS 5.1, Spanish, Turkish, Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1 with English captions for the hearing impaired. Thanks to DTS-HD encoding, which provides a much higher bitrate, the mix sounds much cleaner and crisper than ever before. Sound design is still a little flat. Dialogue, in some spots, also remains hard to hear, though it’s much better with this release. I imagine this is probably as good as it gets for Raging Bull.

Most of the supplementary content comes from the DVD version, repacked on Blu-ray in MPEG-2 with Dolby Digital. However, much of it is essential viewing/listening for fans of the film and the principals involved.

The audio commentary
is divided into three parts. Part one features Scorsese and Editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Part two features producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, cinematographer Michael Chapman, longtime Scorsese friend Robbie Robertson, as well as John Turturro who appears for the first time in a major picture as part of Sal’s crew. Also included are Cis Corman, Frank Warner and Theresa Saldana. Part three features co-writers Mardik Martin and Paul Schrader, Jason Lustig and Jake La Motta himself. I found the commentary featuring La Motta himself to be the most interesting. I learned things I didn’t know and whenever you’re dealing with a biopic, it’s good to hear from the subject himself.

Before the Fight–a 26-minute fascinating discussion of writing, casting and preproduction that includes interviews, and behind-the-scenes stills and footage featuring De Niro, Scorsese, Winkler, La Motta and others.

Inside the Ring
–a 15-minute documentary focusing on the choreography of fight scenes that again offers interviews with principals including Joe Pesci and features behind-the-scenes stills and footage.

Outside the Ring–this 27-minutes featurette about behind-the-scenes anecdotes continues the trend of spliced-up interviews, footage and photos.

After the Fight
–clocking in at more than 15 minutes, the documentary offers insights into music, sound effects and the legacy of the film as discussed by Scorsese, Schoonmaker, Cathy Moriarty and Michael Chapman.

The Bronx Bull
–a 28-minute behind-the-scenes featurette that includes great detail from La Motta, as well as discussions with Schoonmaker at her editing station.