Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 8:02 pm on May 17, 2009

Status: In limited release (opened 4/24/09)
Directed By: James Toback
Written By: James Toback
Cinematographer: Larry McConkey
Starring: Mike Tyson

Growing up in the 80s, Mike Tyson was a mythical figure. Everybody knew who he was, and everybody followed his career: becoming the youngest boxer to hold the unified heavyweight title, his numerous first-round knockouts, his eccentric personality. He was also the star and subject of one of the early iconic Nintendo games, which only increased his mystique among people in my age group.

Tyson is the story of the former champ’s life, from growing up in Brooklyn to winning and then losing the title, as told by the man himself. I heard an interview with director James Toback on Ron and Fez where he repeatedly compared his on-camera interviews with Tyson to therapy sessions, and the effect is certainly there: seated on a couch, Tyson opens up completely for the camera, sharing with the audience several revealing monologues that are completely unencumbered by any sense of self-censorship.

The manner in which he relates his story is at least as interesting as the story itself. Tyson’s odd, lisp-enhanced speech pattern borders on surreal at times, particularly when he flexes his surprisingly impressive vocabulary—which he continually balances with mispronounced and invented words. His defining characteristic, though, is his frankness; Mike Tyson is a man who doesn’t care what anybody else thinks and isn’t afraid to let them all know it. He speaks openly about his romantic relationships: the time he contracted gonorrhea before a title fight, his inability to remain faithful (which he refers to as “extracurricular activities”). This has particularly interesting implications when his alleged rape of Desiree Washington is addressed, as to this day he maintains his innocence, and we’re left with no reason to doubt him—especially when he implies, in not exactly discreet terms, that he has raped other women before, just not her.

Aside from the tabloid topics, we also get Tyson’s take on his professional career, with a lot of engaging revelations along the way. Particularly telling is when “Iron Mike” repeatedly becomes choked up while discussing his mentor and father figure, Cus D’Amato, who died before he got a chance to see his protégé become world champion. The contrast between the tough street kid who doesn’t want to allow his emotions to come out and the still-maturing adult who’s baring his soul is fascinating. This theme permeates the film, in fact, with Tyson often playing the role of tragic figure, allowing us to see through the chinks in his macho armor to the humanity underneath.

Toback’s filmmaking style is best when it stays out of the way of his subject. There are no interviews of anybody other than Tyson, and yet, due to the man’s inability to ever restrain himself from saying exactly what’s on his mind, we are told more than one side of every story. Toback gets a bit too clever for his own good, though, sometimes showing overlapping interview segments on screen simultaneously in growing and shrinking boxes, and these sequences feel more like somebody playing around with his editing software to see what it can do than a director trying to allow his subject to tell his own story. This technique is thankfully only used occasionally, though I wish it weren’t present at all, as I feel that all it does is get in the way of the documentary’s narrative. It’s a lapse in judgment—infrequent as it occurs—to think that anything other than putting Tyson on screen and allowing him to speak is needed in order to hold the audience’s attention.

Perhaps the most revelatory sequence—as well as the best-edited—is when Tyson describes his fateful WBA title bout with Evander Holyfield, which famously ended when Tyson bit off his opponent’s ear. His take on the fight, while not entirely vindicating, is certainly an interesting exercise in perspective, and Toback’s style of syncing the proper footage from the fight itself with Tyon’s narration serves to demonstrate what led to the bizarre outcome in a way that is much more empathetic than I would’ve ever expected.

Coming into this documentary, I knew a lot of Tyson’s story, having always been fascinated by him. Despite not being much of a boxing fan, I find that I always stop when I discover a Tyson fight while flipping through channels. I’ve watched ESPN Classic shows about him, I’ve read exposés in Playboy exploring his relationship with D’Amato, but never have I seen anything as complete or, more importantly, as personal as the story that is told here. Mike Tyson is an engaging figure, shown here in a shockingly candid manner. His monologues range from touching and borderline tear-inducing to completely hilarious, and everything in between. The one consistency is that he is never boring or uninteresting, and Tyson is a unique opportunity to see him tell his own story, completely.