Martin Scorsese was still reeling from the 1977 fiasco of “New York, New York” when he came to “Raging Bull.” He self-medicated with cocaine, and was hospitalized with internal bleeding when Robert De Niro threw him a lifeline: let’s make a biopic about one of the most self-destructively savage boxers to ever set foot in the ring. The asthmatic Scorsese, who’d subjected his body to a narcotic pummeling, accepted his friend’s offer, and hurled himself into the project.
There’s a touch of an underdog tale in the making of “Raging Bull.” Scorsese, who believed his career was finished, kicked his addiction and roused himself to compose a symphony of abuse. The film, however, is the antithesis of this journey, and the rabbit-punching counterpart to “Rocky.” Middleweight great Jake LaMotta, aka “The Bronx Bull,” was a feared and loathed fighter driven by a sociopathic desire for punishment. LaMotta was uniquely terrifying in that he lacked knockout power. You didn’t beat Lamotta, you survived him. If he put you down, it was because he got inside and turned you into a human heavy bag. He lived life the same way, doggedly abusing friends and family, daring them to absorb blow after blow — emotionally and physically — for the pleasure of remaining in his orbit.