Rocky vs. Raging Bull – which is the Cinematic King of the Ring?
Among the movies released on Christmas was a film by the name of Grudge Match, a comedy starring Sylvester Stallone and Robert de Niro as two long feuding boxers in a final tie-breaking bout. When it was first advertised, it caught my attention for the same reason it the mention of those two actors names did – you have Sylvester Stallone, the man behind Rocky, and Robert de Niro, the man behind Raging Bull, in a boxing movie together. Rocky vs. Raging Bull, why hasn’t anyone thought to do that before? It’s hardly a new idea after all – in fact, it taps into one of the liveliest debates in all of cinema, the feud over whether Rocky or Raging Bull is the definitive boxing film.
It’s hardly surprising that there’s a feud – you have two boxing movies both widely hailed as masterpieces that people will still watched and discussed even today, and likely will be as long as there are people to watch them. They both got nominated for scores of Oscars, they’re both recognized as the definitive roles of the iconic lead actors in either film, and yet, the two films tell very different stories and are very different movies, yet both tell tales so iconic folks know them without having even seen either film.
So, Rocky vs. Raging Bull, which is the better film? Let’s take a look.
In one corner, you have Rocky, the tale of a down-on his luck amateur boxer who gets a chance to go fifteen rounds with the heavyweight champion of the world, and in defiance of all expectations, including his own, is still standing at the end of the match, and even knocked the champ down a few times. The movie is wildly influential, having spawned a franchise of six films and countless imitators ranging from The Karate Kid to Kickboxer, and Rocky Balboa is widely recognized as one of cinema’s greatest heroes, to the point his fictional hometown of Philadelphia has a statue of Rocky near the museum staircase the film made a landmark.
Of course, it’s easy to forget that for all the influence that followed, what a small, personal film Rocky is – it was filmed for just over a million dollars, and many of its most iconic or influential moments, ranging from the scene Rocky and Adrian’s first date at the ice skating rink, or one of the first uses of the Steadicam camera mount to film the Rocky Stairs sequence, were made due to budget constraints. While many dismiss it as a schmaltzy unrealistic underdog story, one forgets how Sylvester Stallone went from penniless and homeless to being an Oscar-nominated actor and screenwriter overnight thanks to Rocky, an underdog story every bit as inspiring as the film itself.
In the other corner, you have Raging Bull, a biopic based on the life of boxer Jake LaMotta whose inner turmoil both won him his belt and eventually would lose him everything. Wildly controversial in its time for its graphic content, it’s since been recognized as a modern classic, recognized as the crowning achievement of both director Martin Scorsese and lead actor Robert DeNiro, and given the incredible careers both have had, that speaks volumes.
Stylistically unique for reasons ranging from having been shot in black in white to some of the innovative cinematography Scorsese pioneered working on the film, the film was also notable both for a screenplay that referenced everything from Shakespeare to Brando, and for Robert DeNiro’s remarkable dedication to the role, ranging from learning to box to both drastic weight loss and weight gain, and to this day it remains one of the finest examples of method acting in movie history.
Despite these very different stories, backgrounds and legacies, perhaps the biggest contrast between the two stems from, ironically enough, their greatest similarity: both films boil down to how the protagonist deals with self-doubt, which forms both the central conflict and narrative journey for both films.
Rocky is the quintessential tale of the American Dream – Rocky Balboa may not be the smartest, or the best looking, or have had the best run in life, but he never lacks in spirit or the desire to do better. That, more than anything else, is his reason for fighting as hard as he does – he wants to prove to himself and prove to the world that he’s a somebody, and if that means going fifteen rounds with Apollo Creed, he’ll do it with the whole world watching him. That is the big conflict in Rocky – he’s fighting his own self-image and self-doubt, and when the bell rings for the last round, he’s bruised, bloody, but still standing, and even if he lost the match, he’s still triumphant, because even as the crowd screaming his name, it’s what he’s screaming to Adrian that matters ‘I did it! Adrian, I did it!’ He won the respect of his opponent, the crowd, but above all else, himself.
In comparison, Raging Bull tells a far darker tale – Jake LaMotta is in many ways the inverse of Rocky Balboa. His reasons to fighting are rooted in that same desire to succeed, that same struggle with self-doubt, but where Rocky faces it down and conquers his, for LaMotta, the struggle consumes him, consumes his life, and consumes everything around him until he’s literally punching the walls of a prison cell. Raging Bull covers the rise and fall of Jake LaMotta, but also explores how the same fire that won him that belt in time burns him out completely, costing him his wife, his friends, his belt, and very nearly much more. The movie ends with LaMotta, overweight, for the most part alone, hyping himself up in the mirror, and not even he seems convinced. It’s a Shakespearean tragedy that would make the Bard himself proud.
Both movies tell the story of a man at conflict with himself, the difference lies that Rocky tells the tale of a man who overcomes it, while Raging Bull is the tale of a man overcome by it. Both are equally valid angles, and in the end, the choice of which one is better comes down to personal choice. Triumph or Tragedy? The Unstoppable Force or the Immovable Object? Cinderella or King Lear? Self-affirmation or self-destruction? The Italian Stallion or the Raging Bull? It’s a title bout for the ages, that’s for sure.
Regardless of your choice, both are incredibly powerful movies that pack one hell of a punch – Rocky and Raging Bull are the kings of the ring when it comes to boxing movies, no other contenders even come close to the lofty standards set by these two. I personally think that they’re work far better as companion pieces than as rivals, as given the different directions they take with the shared central conflict, they form perhaps the best one-two punch in all of cinema.
Plus, is there any better way to end a debate over boxing movies than with a split decision?