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by Peter Sobczynski

5 stars

Even though it has been quite a long time since he has stepped foot into the boxing ring and even longer since his astonishing dominance of the sport in the late Eighties and early Nineties, former heavyweight champion is still such a polarizing figure that the mere existence of a documentary about his tumultuous life and career is anathema to them, especially one directed by a longtime friend who has chosen to approach the material entirely from Tyson’s point-of-view instead of taking a more objective stance by interviewing other people to get the other side of the story. And yet, the resulting film, James Toback’s “Tyson” is no mere hagiography or whitewash of Tyson’s admittedly checkered past, the kind of thing that ESPN might commission as a puff-piece special. In fact, it is one of the most absorbing sports-related documentaries that I can remember seeing and one sure to surprise and galvanize viewers of all types.

Essentially, “Tyson” is a 90-minute monologue in which Tyson takes viewers on a verbal guided tour of one of the more public lives of recent years to try to show how a troubled kid could somehow emerge from a world of poverty and violence in the mean streets of Brooklyn into becoming one of the most famous people in the world thanks to his natural talents and a nurturing support system and then squander it all in a haze of ego, violence, stupidity and an inability to keep his inner demons at bay. As a young child, we discover, he was sickly and often bullied until someone pushed him too far (I will leave you to discover the details for yourself) and he won his first fight. After that, he began running with the wrong crowd and helping out with committing robberies until he was eventually arrested at the age of 12. Ironically, this would be a godsend of sorts because while jailed, he would begin to learn boxing and would eventually be taken under the wing of legendary trainer Cus D’Amato, a man who recognized that Tyson had the talent to succeed if he truly applied himself and, more importantly, he recognized that if he went back to his old life, he would most likely wind up either dead or in jail. Although D’Amato would pass away while Tyson was on the cusp of stardom, the discipline he installed would remain and before long, Tyson would become the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world through a series of fights in which he would decimate his opponents so thoroughly that many people thought that he was truly invincible and could never be taken down.

Alas, one of the people who felt that way was Tyson himself and that attitude helped inspire a downfall so massive that he seems stunned by it at times as he relates it to us. After the loss of D’Amato, he eventually found himself in the clutches of the infamous Don King and his retinue of hangers-on that would help siphon away a good chunk of his fortune over the next few years. He embarked on a high-profile and short-lived marriage to actress Robin Givens that culminated with a still-startling interview with Barbara Walters in which Gives calls Tyson a violent and manic-depressive brute while he just placidly sits there and lets it happen rather than cause a scene and potentially prove her point. Most significantly, he bought his own hype as to his boxing prowess and slacked off significantly in his training (at one point, a sparring partner knocks him to the canvas during practice) until a lazy and uninterested Tyson lost his title in a stunning upset at the hands of journeyman palooka Buster Douglas. From that point, his life began to spin even further out of control in an orgy of sex, drugs and bad decisions that eventually led to a three-year stretch in prison after being convicted of raping a beauty pageant contestant, a charge that he still virulently denies to this day. After being released from prison, he tries to restart his career but after a promising start, it all falls apart again (most infamously when he bit a chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear off in the middle of a match) and by the end of his career in 2005, he is reduced to fighting (and often losing to) a string of no-name lumps in matches that he admits that he is only participating in so that he can pay his bills.

The details of Tyson’s life have, of course, been covered in minute detail over the years via books, magazine articles, television specials and Barbara Kopple’s fascinating 1993 documentary “Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson” but “Tyson” has one thing that those other things have largely lacked--the voice of Tyson himself guiding us through the material. Of course, the idea of listening to Mike Tyson speaking for 90 minutes about his life may strike some people as borderline unendurable, especially if they know him only as the brute whose only memorable quotes have involved his desire to eat the children of his opponents. Being brutally honest, I sort of felt that way going into the screening and I was stunned to discover not the monosyllabic thug that most people picture when they hear his name, but a quiet, restrained and surprisingly thoughtful man analyzing his life in a lucid and articulate manner. This is not someone who is merely rehashing carefully polished accounts of his past with the cool distance of a talk show guest telling the same story for the umpteenth time--as he is recounting his stories, he does so in a way that is so direct and intimate that it feels as though he is still living through them after all these years (and in many ways, he is) and is just as surprised as we are to see what has transpired in that time. Additionally, even though Tyson‘s side is the only one that we hear during the film, this is not a whitewash designed to paint him as some innocent who has been cruelly manipulated over the years--with the exception of the rape conviction that he still disputes, he pretty much accepts the blame for nearly everything that happened to him and there are moments, especially when Don King comes up, in which his anger rises to the surface and reminds us that even though he seems more or less at peace these days, the demons that have plagued him his entire life are still there.

Because he is known primarily for penning the Academy Award-nominated screenplay for “Bugsy” and directing a string of fascinating, pungent and deeply personal films such as “Fingers,” “Exposed,” “Two Girls and a Guy” and “When Will I Be Loved” (all of which you should see immediately if you haven’t yet done so), some have expressed curiosity as to why James Toback would make a film like this in the first place. Well, the easy way to answer that question is to note that he and Tyson have been friends for many years--Toback even gave him small parts playing himself in “Black & White” (in which, in that film’s most memorable moment, he violently reacted to an unscripted on-screen sexual come-on from Robert Downey Jr.) and “When Will I Be Loved”--and presumably realized that if anyone was going to get Tyson talking about his life to the degree that he does here, it would be him. However, if you are familiar with Toback’s previous films, you will instantly recognize that many of the elements that are touched on here as those that Toback has been long obsessed with--race, sex, class, money violence, madness, self-destructive behavior, professional sports and people being torn between embracing and squandering their natural gifts in ways that no one, not even themselves, can begin to understand. Seen in that context, “Tyson” is a Toback film through and through and even though we never actually hear his voice, either literally or literarily, he still finds ways to subtly put his personal touch on the material, most obviously via a split-screen motif that helps accentuate the numerous forces pulling at Tyson even to this day.

At one point in “Tyson,”, Tyson remarks that “no one that isn’t an extremist can understand the mind of an extremist” and that is certainly the case here. In his own way, Toback is just as extreme a personality as Tyson, dealt with his share of demons and therefore has a better understanding of what makes a guy like Tyson tick than most people. Because of this, he is able to get beyond the scandals and rumors and public meltdowns in order to get to the person beneath the headlines, a man whose life is still governed by the fear and anger that led him to unleash his wrath upon that bully long ago. This is an extraordinary portrait of a complicated and contradictory man and regardless of your previously held views towards him, it is complex and thoughtful enough to force you to reconsider and reshape them as a result.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=18219&reviewer=389
originally posted: 05/01/09 00:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2009 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2009 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

5/19/10 millersxing Quite revealing considering there's always been a klieglight of attention paid to the man. 4 stars
8/21/09 damalc very engaging. Tyson was alternately sympathetic and despicable. 4 stars
5/02/09 David Kreitzer Best biography ever, still has me thinking 5 stars
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  24-Apr-2009 (R)
  DVD: 18-Aug-2009


  DVD: 18-Aug-2009

Directed by
  James Toback

Written by

  Mike Tyson

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