A film review by Craig J. Koban July 23, 2009

Rank:  #12

TYSON jjjj

2009, R, 90 mins.

A documentary directed by James Toback

"My insanity is my sanity."

Mike Tyson in TYSON


I think that the above quotation does a swift job of encompassing James Toback’s startling, unflinching, and shockingly honest documentary about “Iron” Mike Tyson, self-proclaimed as the “Most Dangerous Man on the Planet.”  In many ways...he's a living paradox.


During his pugilistic heyday he undoubtedly dominated his sport in a manner perhaps not seen since the days of Ali.  Tyson was a real life raging bull in the squared circle that won matches hands-down before he even stepped foot in the ring.  His punching power was extremely lethal and his fierce and piercing stare overwhelmed his opponents well before the opening bell rung.  He was, for all intents and purposes, an unstoppable machine that the sport has never seen before or since. 

Then there is the Tyson of recent infamy.

The man who was, on public television, emotionally eviscerated by his then wife, Robin Givens, as being a dangerously unstable “manic depressive”; the man who allowed his own inflated ego get in the way of what should have been him destroying the 42-to-1 underdog James “Buster” Douglas, but instead suffered a 10th round knockout loss that emerged as one of the single greatest upset in sports history; the man that was convicted of sexually assaulting Desiree Washington in 1992, which led to him serving three years in prison; the man who utterly lost it in the ring against Evander Hollyfield in their 1997 rematch where “Kid Dynamite” ended the contest by savagely biting his opponent’s ear;  the man who made feeble attempts at a comeback facing less-than-stellar opponents, which he freely and publicly admitted was done to make a quick buck; and finally the man who was a rabid sex and drug addict that eventually let his near $300 million fortune slip right out of his hands. 

Mike Tyson is no saint. 

Yet, a lazy and pedestrian documentary on Tyson would have been nothing more than a hastily cobbled together bit of character assassination; it would have told us everything we already know about the man.  The great and evocative documentaries are ones that I think make us reconsider their material, and that’s where I think Toback’s doc scores a victorious knockout.  It uses the obligatory elements of traditional documentaries, to be sure (like archival interviews and footage, as well as voiceover narration, etc.), but the subtle genius of Toback’s approach here is that this is a Tyson biography told ostensibly through the former Heavyweight Champion’s own words.  What has emerged is potentially one of the most frank, candid, and surprisingly touching and sad tributes to a ring warrior whose life has left him more bloodied and battered than any actual fight did.  Toback frames Tyson as a deeply complex and flawed figure that simultaneously commands both our understanding and condemnation of the life he has led.  TYSON goes the distance for how it frames its athlete as a misunderstood persona; not a sympathetic one, mind you, but one that has been somewhat misconstrued…perhaps largely because of his own troubling legacy. 

Toback has known Tyson since he was 19-years-old and his longstanding relationship with the boxer can be felt at every intimate pore of the film.  Financing the documentary largely on his own dollar and shooting nearly 30 hours of footage of Iron Mike, Toback’s motives were to get Tyson to really let his guard down so he could discuss his life while he was struggling through a grueling rehab.  I think Toback’s timing could have been no better: by letting Tyson reflect at this time of personal transition allows for a once emotionally and physically impenetrable man to open up and speak honestly about some of his darkest periods.  No topic was left off limits (although there are moments where Tyson seems unwilling to elaborate on certain scandals) and the former fighter would have no say on final cut (despite his own Executive Producer credit).  On the whole, the film feels like one prideful and frequently painful monologue, and to see this fallen and discredited warrior show his wounded soul to the silver screen is nothing short of intoxicating. 

What’s key is both Toback’s aesthetic choices and tone choices.  TYSON is sparse and simple in execution and style: He has the 40-something boxer sit on his couch for most of the running time, often speaking directly into the camera (which creates an unrelenting sense of intimacy) and oftentimes all we need his Tyson’s tattooed and battled hardened mug to cast a spell over the viewers.  Toback also makes bravura use of slit screens, multiple angles, and brilliant use of editing and juxtaposing of images.  Whereas some will find this jarring and annoying I found it to be of paramount importance to hammer home the film’s message: Tyson is a multifaceted and contradictory presence and a man that often battles not only with words but also how to use them to describe himself.  Sometimes the screen is filled with multiple shots of Tyson with overlapping voices – the point here is that Toback captures the essence of one man battling with his own image and legacy.  We have a hard time understanding him because, deep down inside, I think he has difficulty accepting who he is and has been. 

Like most docs, TYSON is a chronological look at the boxer’s life - before, during, and after boxing.  In the opening sections of the film he discusses, without much fondness, his early upbringing and his mother and father, the former he labels as “promiscuous” and the latter as being largely absent.  This led to the young Tyson drifting into the nasty underbelly of petty street crime by the time he was barely an adolescent in Brooklyn.  This further led to one of his “scariest” moments in life serving time in a juvenile detention center and, after being released, he had the fateful meeting with Cus D’Amato, who eventually would become the Mickey to his Rocky.  During his recollections of this father figure he never had, Tyson struggles to fend off tears and a sense of tragic loss.  D’Amato died when Tyson was 19, just before he could see him become the youngest person ever to win the WBC title in the mid-80’s by beating Trevor Berbick.  Clearly, D’Amato was a deeply integral person that shaped the boxer that Tyson would successfully become, but he also was a nurturing paternal figure that Tyson grew to respect and love.  Seeing Tyson’s eyes swell up and fight back the traumatic memories of losing his most cherished companion is undeniably moving. 

With WBC title win Tyson became the stuff of sports legend and myth.  He went on to become the undisputed champion (winning the WBC, WBA and IBF belts, in relatively easy fashion) and his commentary on his ring methodology at this time would, no doubt, make Sun Tzu proud.  Even though he was a rugged and rock hard physical specimen, Tyson’s ring m.o. was pure psychology: win the fight before even starting it.  He surprisingly reveals how terrified he was going into every match, even when the outcome was often won in his favor in mere seconds.  “I’m scared to death.  I’m Afraid.  I think this man might be capable of beating me, “ Tyson explains, “And for that I’ve always stayed afraid of my opponents.  But the closer I get into the ring the more confident I get.”  Tyson also knew precisely when he won the match: during the pre-fight stare down.  If the other boxing glanced, albeit momentarily, off of his eyes, then he knew that he'd be victorious.  Toback uses exemplary choices here of freeze-framing on Tyson’s victims right before the slaughter: you can immediately sense their fear.

Success soon went to Tyson's head, and it's refreshing to see him admit it.  His very public marriage to Givens is recounted, as his that damning Barbara Walters interview where he shockingly describes why he let his wife verbally accost him in front of millions of viewers (now, I am not saying that Tyson was not an adultery and abuser, but there are strategic moments hinted at by Toback's editing choices that show his ex-wife as a bit of a publicity hound).  Perhaps even more scandalous is Tyson’s Vulcan-like honesty regarding his infidelities and his overall feelings towards women: he sees them as not flesh and blood human beings, but as objects to be sexually conquered.  

Tyson and Travis Bickle should have been in group therapy together. 

There are even more appalling and habitually deplorable admissions on his part: He reveals his seething and teeth-clenched level of hatred towards the woman that led to his prison term.  Tyson has very little to say regarding his rape conviction, but he does insist that he was innocent and goes to great levels to call the victim a “swine” (to be fair to Tyson, prison had many negative influences on him, like making him dreadfully distrustful of anyone, which led to even more scandalous behavior later).  He also talks about how he went into the ring after nights of wild, unprotected, and promiscuous sex, which led to him fighting with an STD during his first title fight against Berbick.  And, seriously, how creepy and frightening is re-hearing his homophobic rants at the 2002 press conference before his fight against Lennox Lewis: “I’ll fuck you till you love me, faggot!”  Tyson is almost at a loss for words to explain that.  Perhaps the most blunt admission on his part was how he personally made a mockery of his sport and the memory of his dead trainer by taking late-career fights to simply pay “bills” as opposed to reclaim his lost glory.  It’s astonishing to see him never once hide behind any false façade or manufactured bravado here: In the end, he was a limp wristed, flat footed, and out of shape bum, and he freely accepts it.  The real irony of TYSON is that he had that same fearful look in his eyes before fights at the twilight of his comeback as his opponents did when he decimated them in record time decades earlier.   

Shocking admissions aside, what truly makes TYSON unmistakably hypnotic and compelling as a character piece are all of the contradictions that surround this man.  Tyson shows very little regret or sympathy towards recalling his mother and father, but when the subject of D’Amato comes up, he winces and tears up like a baby (he knows that his death jump started his life of excess and needless extremes).  He was a force of unmitigated power in the ring, but admits to being chronically frightened before every fight.  He made hundreds of millions from his relationship with promoter Don King, but then later recounts him as a “slimy, reptilian mutha fucker.”  He is steadfast in admitting that he was a terrible abuser of woman and showed no respect towards their feelings and needs, but nonetheless still emphatically denies his rape charge.  Yet, surprisingly, he went on to lead a sexual aggressive lifestyle after prison.  Maybe the biggest contradiction is the everyday public image of Tyson – that of sex and drug addicted convicted rapist; an ear biting boxer with a wild temper and thunderous uppercut, and a man who flushed his life and career away via a storm of personal strife and scandal – juxtaposed against one single and touching home video shown in the film.  In it a somewhat rehabilitated and well-mannered Tyson is shown playing with his infant daughter from his second marriage: for a fleeting moment we see him shed away his duplicitous and damning past. 

The real aim of TYSON just may be that after all of the barbaric and ferocious ring battles, criminal activities, prison terms, accusations, and dreadful downward spiral into a failed comeback and more drug addiction, Mike Tyson is making a different type of comeback in life.   At the end of the film he seems more adjusted, more relaxed within his own skin, and seems more willing to leave the past behind and fight the new battle of gaining some semblance of self-respect back.  Whether he has – of will ever be – successful at this endeavor remains to be seen, but the documentary speaks volumes of the credo that confession is good for the soul.  Yet, despite all of that, Toback’s doc achieves something that few films – fictional or not – muster: he gives a rare, stunningly introspective, brutally candid, and, most significantly, touchingly humane portrait of an incredibly despised celebrity figure.  The masterstroke of TYSON is that it challenges us to reconsider this highly flawed and multi-faceted persona.   Now pushing his mid-40’s and looking a far cry less than his former invincible self, Mike Tyson looks into the camera during this film and does not beg for forgiveness nor sympathy…but just a bit more understanding.  

And for that, TYSON emerges as one of 2009’s most unforgettable portraits. 

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