A man stands in a dressing room delivering a monologue to a mirror. He recites words that intimate regret. The character is Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro), a former middleweight boxing champion.
Then it cuts back to 1941, where he is much younger and engaged in a vicious boxing match. At his corner is his younger brother Joey(Joe Pesci), a hothead and an effective manager. The two are a team but not without their own issues.
Jake has a temper that flares. It creates an uneasy relationship with his wife and prevents relationships with influential men who can lead him to a title fight. But Jakes doesn’t want their influence. He grudges against them because they look like big shots. He prefers to take his own way to the top.
Then he sees a beautiful girl named Vickie at a fancy restaurant. A bit intimidated at first, he eventually dates her and the two become more than friends. After several years, they are married and have three kids. And then finally, after many fights, Jake becomes a middle weight champion. But the personal issues remain.
There is a feeling of insecurity about the size of his hands. Jake believes because they are small, it prevents him from being the boxer he wants to be. Then later, he develops a paranoia that shifts towards his personal life, particularly Vickie (Cathy Moriarty). He begins to feel that she doesn’t love him.
The entire movie is shot in black and white (by Michael Chapman) which gives it an aged, historical quality. It also enhances certain effects like the fumes in a boxing ring which emphasize a heated atmosphere. The boxing is brutal and bloody and boxers get struck a lot. However the violence is not restricted to the ring. Vickie receives some degree of treatment that hurts her as well.
Robert De Niro brings an energized and obstinate quality to Jake that is mesmerizing. He gives a physical performance as the larger Jake at the beginning of the film and the trimmed Jake in the younger years. It’s directed by Martin Scorsese, who captures a man’s emotional saga of his career and personal life.