Reel Rumbles #36: “The Fighter” vs. “Raging Bull”

7 Jun

When I decided to do a Reel Rumbles about the top 2 sports dramas, I assumed number one would be Rocky. I was wrong, but I was also stunned to see only two sports films in the global Top 100 Movies Of All Time. Not only that, but there are some great sports movies which are severely underrated, Caddyshack at number #355 and Slap Shot at number #491, just to name two. If this article does nothing else, I hope it inspires people to either watch more highly regarded sports movies, or at least re-rank some of these films and give them a nice bump.

Also, before you fly down to the comments section and tell me there are actually 3 sports movies in the Top 100, let me say I don’t count The Wrestler, because in my view, pro wrestling isn’t a sport. I am willing to be pretty open to what constitutes a sports movie. I will even include billiards so I can count both The Hustler and The Color of Money in the sports movie pantheon. But unfortunately, the fact that wrestling matches have predetermined outcomes take away any argument pro wrestling may have in being a sport.

Round 1: Story

There are numerous similarities between these two movies’ stories: the protagonists’ families play large roles, both boxers face just as many battles outside the ring as in it, and both films pull no punches in painting people as they truly are.

However, there are two main differences that make each film stand out from the other. First, Raging Bull‘s protagonist – Robert De Niro as Jake La Motta – is highly unlikable compared to The Fighter‘s Mark Wahlberg as Micky Ward. La Motta is incredibly selfish, brash, jealous, and arrogant, where Micky Ward is quiet, loyal to a fault, and humble. The vast differences in character lead to the way the movies focus on the supporting characters. In Raging Bull, every character reacts based on La Motta’s personality. They walk on egg shells around him because he is a loose cannon that only gets worse as the movie progresses through his life. The Fighter is the exact opposite. Ward is so quiet that he reacts based on all the other incredibly strong personalities around him, often making him feel like the supporting character in his own film.

Neither movie is better or worse because of these differences, but there is something else that sets the two apart. Raging Bull focuses on a 20 year portion of La Motta’s life. We come to understand his character more and come to like him, flaws and all. We witness his dramatic highs and watch him break down not once, but two different times. We see him finally attaining the title he has fought for so long to achieve, and then we see him smashing the jewels off the belt trying to raise money for court fees. The Fighter focuses on a finer point of time in Ward’s career, where it seems everything comes to a head, and ends when he is at his high point. By the end, it’s much more of a feel-good movie, as everyone important seems to have corrected whatever weakness they had, and Ward wins the title. That doesn’t make it a bad movie, but gives it a lack of depth compared to Raging Bull‘s full character development.

Winner: Raging Bull

Round 2: Direction

Even though both directors were nominated for Academy Awards for the films, this round isn’t close. Martin Scorsese put his fingerprints all over Raging Bull and it is infinitely better for it. He has his signature graphic and over the top violence that can border on funny at certain points. Every boxing match is delicately choreographed with the camera being as mobile as the actors.

He also has the uncanny ability to add realism to scenes by adding a throw-away piece of dialogue. The best example of this is when La Motta is leading his future wife Vicki to his bedroom for the first time. He is showing her around his apartment and when they are walking through the living room, La Motta points at an empty birdcage in the background and says, “That’s a bird. Well it was a bird, but it’s dead now.” It’s just a funny little line that De Niro either improvised or Scorsese thought up that adds more to a scene than most people realize.

When you see things like this in his movies you smirk to yourself and acknowledge how “Scorsese” a certain thing is, and rekindles your love for him as a director. David O. Russell just doesn’t bring the same things to his movies. At no point during The Fighter did I ever think, “What a cool/stylized shot” or look back and think that he told the story in a way that’s particularly special. The movie was just shot in a formulaic way by an above-average director. It’s almost not fair to compare him to an auteur like Scorsese.

Winner: Raging Bull

Round 3: Acting

This is by far the toughest decision for me to make. Between the two films they had 3 wins and 2 nomination for Oscars within acting categories. I’ve gone back and forth on which film had “better” acting and I almost want to say it’s a draw. Robert De Niro was simply amazing as Jake La Motta. His transformation throughout the movie was one of the more incredible physical changes an actor has physically put out in movie history. Those weren’t prosthetics, he got in boxing shape for those scenes and then gained a bunch of weight for the later scenes. When you are watching a film and can forget you are watching an actor as well known as De Niro, you know you have a special performance. He definitely outshines Mark Wahlberg as Micky Ward, whose character just didn’t have a strong enough personalty to match it.

Everything I just said about De Niro qualifies for Christian Bale playing Micky Ward’s brother as well. He completely embodied the character of Dicky Ward. Watching him felt like watching a desperate drug addict still clinging to his past. You could tell he truly loved his family, but the drugs had too strong a hold of him. Also, he deserves a lot of credit for turning his very Welsh accent into a flawless Lowell accent. I love Joe Pesci and he’s great in Raging Bull, but Bale’s performance elevates him above and beyond.

When I watched The Fighter I was rather annoyed by Melissa Leo‘s character because I thought she was a ridiculous cliché. Later I would find out how accurate of a representation that she was to the actual person. Despite my reservations, I think she deserved the credit she received. She plays the “villainous” character with enough emotion and grace that we don’t end up hating her. She definitely outclasses Cathy Moriarty, who was good in Raging Bull, but not anything extraordinary.

Winner: Raging Bull. You just can’t beat De Niro’s performance.

Round 4: Sport’s Representation

Raging Bull‘s boxing scenes were definitely more stylized than The Fighter‘s. Scorsese often blacking out most of the background, with only flashbulbs popping, crowd noise piped in, and a slight haze of smoke wafting throughout the ring. He never focused on the boxer’s feeling each other out and only showed them punching the tar out of each other in important rounds. They were also way more bloody and vicious than normal scenes from boxing movies.

I thought both films represented the corner talks and training sessions very well. Capturing a realism that anyone who has played competitive sports can recognize. Raging Bull‘s reproduction of the underbelly of boxing was better. Raging Bull not only touches upon the politics of boxing, but also the mafia’s influence over the sport at the time. There is even a scene that revolves around pride vs. doing anything to win a title. The mafia tells La Motta he must take a dive to get his title shot so the odds will be better for gambling purposes. La Motta loses the match, but doesn’t fake the knockout. The guy was such a bad boxer that La Motta refused to go down to him. Instead he just stood there and took some punches. His throwing of the match was so obvious that he got suspended from boxing.

Winner: Raging Bull

And the Winner Is…

While they are both good movies, it seems ridiculous to think that The Fighter is better than Raging Bull. I suppose I should not be surprised that The Fighter ranks number 1 in sports films. It seems that good movies that are newer often rank higher than great movies that are older. In fact, as I was re-watching Raging Bull to prepare for this article my roommate walked in and watched the last 45 minutes or so with me. Once it was finished, he told me he thought it was good, but often felt too slow – he also said the same thing about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Maybe when I’m being one of those film elitists that troll the internet bashing people for not seeing anything before 1999 and having no frame of reference, I am completely wrong. It’s no secret cultural tastes change with time, and since the times are a-changin’, I guess we should just be happy Raging Bull is even in the Top 100.

  • Nigel Druitt

    I think I might be one of those people who can’t get into older movies, for whatever reason. I didn’t care for Raging Bull at all (though I can certainly acknowledge the acting was great). But then, the only Scorsese movie I’ve seen that I’ve genuinely loved is The Departed (coincidentally, one of his newer ones, and one that many of his fans say just doesn’t measure up to some of his “classics”, despite how good it is).

    I’ve not yet seen The Fighter (I want to), but I have to admit that I even liked Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man more than Raging Bull, and even though it’s been so long since I’ve seen it that I don’t really remember it, I’d be far more likely to want to go back and re-watch Rocky. (Maybe I just like feel-good sports movies better?)

    By contrast, I fairly recently saw Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid for the first time, and I can say it’s the oldest movie I’ve seen in a while that I genuinely liked. And, of course, Butch Cassidy pre-dates Raging Bull by over a decade…

  • Eric Lucero

    Nice analysis of these two films. I think you hit all the relative points. It’s too bad that this rumble was between these two films as the outcome was obvious. A much better matchup would have been Raging Bull vs Million Dollar Baby (which tragically might be the most under ranked film on Flickchart); two absolute masterpieces by two legendary filmmakers that each feature some of the most memorable performances in film history.