Monday, July 24, 2017


Does anyone have bigger balls than the makers of The Bronx Bull? One must ask, "What was wrong with Raging Bull? Not good enough for ya? Did Robert De Niro not quite capture the essence of Jake LaMotta? Was Martin Scorsese not quite cinematic enough?" There was a scene in Albert Brooks' comedy The Muse where Scorsese appeared as himself, pitching an idea for a Raging Bull sequel, only this time LaMotta would be thin. "Thin, but angry," went the joke. The idea was absurd, and that's why it was funny. One imagines the team behind The Bronx Bull pitching their own absurd idea to investors. "Well, Scorsese's movie was OK, but he missed a lot. Go by Scorsese and De Niro's version, and you'd think Jake was just a violent prick." Will the story be factual? "No, we'll fuck around with the facts, but we'll have a good cast. Lots of familiar faces."  Who will play the Joe Pesci part? "We're cutting that character all together, so we can focus more on Jake's romantic life. Did you know Jane Russell wanted Jake's hog?"

Martin Guigui's The Bronx Bull (currently on Netflix) is based on a memoir LaMotta wrote in the 1980s, long after Raging Bull had dragged his name out of the dustbins. I vaguely remember reading that book, and thinking it was a calculated attempt to soften his image. In the book, smartly titled Raging Bull II,  LaMotta presented himself as a guy who had been kicked around and only wanted to be loved. The movie, which credits LaMotta as a "consultant," or something along those lines, starts with the teen LaMotta fighting in alleys against Irish bartenders to help his degenerate dad pay his bar tabs. The first half hour of The Bronx Bull seems to be one street fight after another, all staged to look something like Sylvester Stallone's Paradise Alley. The kid ends up in a home for wayward youths, where a priest teaches him the finer points of pugilism. We see Jake boxing a prison guard; the guard doesn't even take off his hat. I'm serious.

Things rocket ahead to Jake's life after boxing. He's haunted by nightmares about his old fights, which are shot in black and white, as if his dreams are directed by Martin Scorsese.  The movie almost gets interesting when some mob goons hire LaMotta to work at their club as a bouncer, but this is just an excuse to show him beating up a bunch of guys. In Raging Bull, Jake beat people up because he was crazy and stupid. In The Bronx Bull, he beats them up because, you know, they deserve a smack. Strangely, the story jumps to 1983 with absolutely no mention that a famous movie was made of LaMotta's life. Like I said, the crew behind The Bronx Bull had balls. As LaMotta, William Forsythe looks the part, but his voice is wrong. He sounds like a 1940s private eye. The rest of the cast includes Paul Sorvino, Joe Mantegna, Tom Sizemore, and other heavy types. Penelope Ann Miller plays a society babe who tells Jake he smells bad.

I had a chance to see Jake LaMotta a few years ago at the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota. He took part in their annual summer motorcade, where dozens of cars haul famous fighters around town. Boxing fans line up on the sidewalk to pay homage. Jake was propped up in the back seat of a car, half awake underneath a cowboy hat. Sometimes he waved, or blew a kiss. He's  in his 90s, but like many old fighters, he wouldn't miss a chance to get a little attention.  As his car approached my section of the street, a smattering of applause went up for the old wife beater and ex-con. Someone shouted, "God bless you, Jake!" More applause. A few loyalists  kept the noise up, encouraging more cheers for LaMotta. He was, after all, the first guy to beat Sugar Ray Robinson, at a time when no man, unless armed  with a rifle, could bring Robinson down. So the applause rose to a level more befitting a legend. He slouched, exhausted in the boiling midday sun. There was more cheering, on and on down the street, as Jake's car crawled along, passing one group of well-wishers, then another. I'm convinced the cheers were only partly for Jake. They were mostly for Robert De Niro.

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