Sitting at a formidable and weighty 98% on Rotten Tomatoes is legendary director Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, a biopic of Jake LaMotta, a 40s era boxer who was nicknamed “The Raging Bull” because of his short fuse and aggressive style in the ring.
Michael Ritchie isn’t a legendary director. Despite the fact that he’s made movies like The Bad News Bears and Fletch, I’ve never even heard someone bring his name up in a conversation. And his attempt at a boxing movie, 1992’s Diggstown, is sitting at a paltry 54% on Rotten Tomatoes, derided and then forgotten by a cruel world unwilling to look past the ridiculous shirt and tie combinations James Woods wears in the film.
This injustice will not stand.
What do they have in common?
Raging Bull and Diggstown both live in the seedy underbelly of the boxing world. They’re about poor, uneducated men forced into gladiatorial combat to make ends meet. They’re filled with corruption, scams, and athletes paid to take dives. Basically, they’re like a primer for everything that rules about boxing.
In Raging Bull Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) finds his life hitting the skids due to a history of bad behavior, destructive decisions, and shady deals put together by his manager/brother Joey (Joe Pesci).
In Diggstown a desperate conman named Gabriel Caine (James Woods) makes a bet with an evil business mogul (Bruce Dern) that down and out boxer “Honey” Roy Palmer (Lou Gossett Jr.) can beat any ten boxers in the small burg of Diggstown. A complicated web of fixes, double crosses, and violent attacks follows.
Why is Raging Bull overrated?
Probably the only complaint I’ve ever heard somebody make about Raging Bull is that’s it’s bleak, brutal, and tough to watch because of its unlikable protagonist. But yeah, I’m going to make that complaint too, because it’s a pretty valid one. Jake La Motta is a thoughtless, bullying, stupid man. He’s driven solely by machismo, narcissism, and an endless battle against crippling insecurity. He’s mean as a snake, dumb as a brick, and spends the whole film strutting around like a rooster. This might not have been so bad, and might have even been pretty interesting, if there was something else in the film for the audience to grab onto, someone for them to relate to; but there isn’t. You get through Raging Bull’s entire runtime without meeting a single relatable character.
Still, sometimes I like movies about awful people. But only when they’re twisted, fascinating characters. The characters of Raging Bull are mundane and boring. Their lives are related to us in a slow moving, structureless stream of profanity. The entire film is people yelling at and slapping each other. Other than a vague, oft stated goal that Jake wants to be the champion of the world, there are no goals that anyone is shooting for, there is no road to an endgame for the film. I would be hard pressed to even pick out a moment that serves as the climax because nobody grows, changes, or rises to any occasions over the course of the film.
Raging Bull makes us witness to a low class, witless car crash of humanity. Perhaps it would be fun for a 16-year-old boy to listen to a bunch of meatheads tell each other that their mothers perform gross sexual acts for two hours, but for me it gets old quick. And that turn at the end, where an aged La Motta has become a standup comedian… where was any framework built for that in the first two acts of the film? We follow him for years as an ignorant lump of a man who can barely form a sentence and then all of a sudden he’s a wordsmith crafting lounge act zingers? Perhaps this was the fate of the real life LaMotta, I’m not sure, but for this fictional version of the man, it just didn’t ring true.
Why is Diggstown underpraised?
Just like the characters in Raging Bull, the people who populate the boxing obsessed city limits of Diggstown are sleazy, criminal creeps. James Woods’s character is our protagonist, and he’s an incarcerated conman when we meet him. But he’s a charming rogue. He’s not just a stupid brute ruining everything in his path. He’s a man with a plan, and it’s fun to watch him operate. In Raging Bull De Niro gets Joe Pesci as his counterpart, and that sounds pretty good on paper, but in practice they don’t do much other than yell nonsense at each other. Woods gets to play opposite Lou Gossett Jr. and the banter they trade is killer. They’re sly, smirking, and hitting each other with quips. It’s a fun back and forth, not a vulgar trading of fellatio and mother-sex related non-insults. The movie is a little rough around the edges, but it’s fun to watch. There are poop jokes and nut shots in the third act. Who doesn’t like that?
But the best thing is that all of the twists and turns lead up to one big event that you’re really invested in. An event where a 48-year-old Lou Gossett Jr. has to fight ten men seems ridiculous in concept, but they actually manage to pull it all off. It’s fun to watch the structure of the thing, how the plan used to get rid of each of the ten challengers plays out. There are a lot of characters involved in the event and every one of them, big and small, gets an arc. They all get a dilemma that they struggle with, life and death decisions that need to be made. Wages are made, back room deals are struck, lives are threatened and taken; there are great big stakes in all of this. There’s a story structure that draws you in and keeps you engaged. You’re not just adrift in a sea of misery watching the meandering lives of terrible people fall apart. You’re on a wave runner of awesome, cutting a path through a sea of misery while James Woods wears stupid outfits and Lou Gossett pounds on young punks.
Evening the Odds
Clearly, Raging Bull’s crafting is greater than anything a dumb movie like Diggstown has to offer. The dynamic visual style of Martin Scorsese and the all-in method acting of Robert De Niro make it a piece of art worth checking out despite what you may feel about the other aspects of the film. But Diggstown has a great story, and some great characters; so it sucks to see it dismissed and forgotten.
The score and the costumes are painfully dated, but the strong sense of storytelling that drives the film will play well no matter how much it ages. Also, both of these movies have a hot blonde as their only substantial female character. Diggstown has a ridiculously young, ridiculously leggy Heather Graham, and Raging Bull has Cathy Moriarty. Diggstown wins.