Martin Scorsese certainly doesn’t pull any punches in this biopic of fighter Jake LaMotta that’s as brutal and uncompromising as the man himself.
Although Scorsese’s favourite subject matter of the American gangster is strictly confined to the sidelines for this film, it shares the familiar themes of men of violence whose behaviour is governed by testosterone and ignorance and their whole lives ruled by ego and the unshakeable need to be the “alpha male”. LaMotta, although himself a consultant to the film, is shown to be a thoroughly unlikable individual; a selfish, immature, paranoid bully who is completely incapable of an adult relationship which is no doubt a side effect of his ferocious talent in the ring. Scorsese shows boxing not as a glamorous sport, but one of ugly brutality stained with sprays of sweat and spurts of blood photographed in a style that is grittily factual yet strangely beautiful; this duality is highlighted particularly effectively in his final fight with Sugar Ray Robinson and during his incarceration for corrupting a minor. The centrepiece of the film is no doubt DeNiro’s stunningly believable performance as LaMotta, with strong support from Joe Pesci although I did find Cathy Moriarty a little wooden.
Your enjoyment of the film may well hinge on your ability to relate to such an unpleasant central character but it is a powerful indictment on the excess and emptiness of the pursuit of the American dream and certainly the best boxing film ever made.