June 05, 2009


Will the real Mike Tyson please stand up?

Grade: B

Director: James Toback

Starring: Mike Tyson

MPAA Rating: R

Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Robin Givens was right about one thing: Mike Tyson is a manic depressive. The gallons of ink spilled over deciphering whether the renowned, enigmatic former heavyweight boxing champion is a vile, brutish thug or a pigeon-raising, Oscar Wilde-quoting Renaissance man may as well have been poured down a drain. Both incarnations occupy his split psyche in tandem, one liable to consume the other on a whim.

He is also like an idiot savant whose peculiar genius is the sweet science of pugilism instead of playing the piano or memorizing the phonebook. It is this rare acumen – to which he put considerable effort developing – that catapulted Tyson from Brooklyn’s meaner streets to the heights of boxing superstardom. But, his personality flaws facilitated his equally meteoric fall: the tumultuous marriage and divorce from Givens; the stunning defeat by Buster Douglas; the rape conviction and three-year prison stint; the biting of Evander Holyfield’s ear; substance abuse; and, finally, a string of ignominious in-ring losses which ultimately forced him into a penurious retirement.

The mere existence of yet another documentary about Tyson – the latest titled, appropriately, Tyson – speaks to the public’s continuing fascination with this defrocked warrior. Directed by longtime Tyson acquaintance James Toback (Tyson once cameoed in Toback’s 1999 film, Black & White), the film primarily consists of a seemingly extemporaneous monologue by Tyson about the formative aspects and notable events in this life and career. With a paunch inflating a buttoned-down white shirt and his Maori-inspired face tattoo now buckled under the pressure of time and self-abuse, Tyson both recounts and rambles, from a childhood molded by crime and family dysfunction, to his years living in the Catskills under the tutelage of his trainer and surrogate father Cus D’Amato, to his turbulent career and adult personal life.

Seeing Tyson, his agent Harlan Werner, and Toback listed as the film’s producers, it is easy to regard Tyson as both a public-relations stunt and another in a long, desperate line of efforts to financially capitalize on the fighter’s fading fame. There is much criticism of the film’s apparent lack of objectivity, particularly its lack of third-party interviews and white-wash of central events. Indeed, Tyson, via Toback’s editing, spends more time dissecting the Holyfield ear-biting incident than discussing both Buster Douglas and Desiree Washington combined. He chalks the Givens fiasco up to two people too young to get married. And, copious footage couches Tyson as a doting father and shows him taking long, barefoot walks on the beach against the backdrop of a setting sun.

But, the cleverness of Tyson flows from a simplicity of construct combined with the unpredictability of its subject. Like a bad witness in court, truth is sometimes found from just letting people talk. Such is the case with Tyson, whose rants expose a solipsism that allows him to play the part of either confident world-beater or wronged victim, depending on needs of the moment. He describes Washington as “a wretched, swine of a woman,” then goes on to declare that he “may have taken advantage of women before, but I never took advantage of her.” Indeed, Tyson routinely tosses in crude, bombastic soliloquies about his voracious sexual appetite, along with the tidbit that he first won the heavyweight crown over Trevor Berbick while battling a case of the clap, which is in keeping with the strong sexual themes in Toback’s past works, including Fingers, Love & Money, and When Will I Be Loved.

Tyson should not be regarded as the definitive examination of its subject, but rather a highly subjective, no less enlightening piece in the ever-growing mosaic of Tyson’s life (indeed, his brief mention of his daughter Exodus in the film has already taken on a new perspective following the four-year-old’s recent, tragic death). Frankly, the mere existence of this film and its potential popular appeal says more about us than Mike Tyson. The entertainment landscape long ago became oversaturated with voyeurism over his rise and fall. Our continued fascination with Tyson has more to do with our subconscious attempt to reclaim the sense excitement generated by the last great heavyweight champ. With worldwide acclaim on a par with that once enjoyed by Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, and Muhammad Ali, Tyson brought order to the chaos of boxing by unifying the heavyweight title and dominating the sport as few others before him had, even if that dominance was short-lived and somewhat a mirage. With no heir to that lofty throne yet apparent, Tyson, warts and all, is all we have. The king is dead – long live the king.

Neil Morris

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