Tyson Dir. James Toback

[Sony Pictures Classics; 2009]

Even if our familiarity with Mike Tyson extends only as far as the countless poundings you’ve delivered to poor Glass Joe in Punch-Out!!, the Evander Holyfield ear-biting fiasco, the disastrous marriage to Robin Givens, or the face tattoo, everyone seems to have some opinion of the man. Most people say he’s a nutjob. But he’s also an athlete who transcends the realm of sports -- which seems particularly remarkable when his sport is far from the most popular -- through both the immensity of his talent and the batshit-crazy words that so often roll off his tongue. Here is a man who is often soft-spoken, whose lisp lends his voice a certain vulnerability, yet in the heat of passion he has called his ex-wife a “wretched swine” and threatened to eat his opponent’s children (praising Allah in the next breath, in what is undeniably one of the greatest quotes in human history).

For 88 minutes, director James Toback gives us the trials and tribulations of Mike Tyson, in Tyson’s own, often unhinged, words. Aside from such gimmicky techniques as occasionally overlapping monologues (Welles or Altman this is not) and split screens, Toback is rarely invasive, allowing Tyson to rant, rave, reflect (although too often the visuals accompanying this mood are painfully clichéd shots of the protagonist walking along the beach, staring at the ocean, etc.) and regret at his own pace. Alongside Tyson’s confessions is footage of his greatest feats and most embarrassing mistakes, helping to create a fully formed portrait of a tattered, beaten-down anti-hero who always remains achingly human. As vicious and callous as he can be, his forthrightness in this film is commendable. Tyson takes his medicine, admitting his shortcomings and failures in humble fashion, yet always remains the unstable, unpredictable public speaker we know and love (to hate). In tears while discussing his first trainer and mentor, Cus D’Amato, Tyson gets choked up and pauses. One could be forgiven for expecting a touching word or two about how meaningful the friendship was, but Iron Mike recovers from his emotions only to veer off into how Cus helped him to believe that no one would fuck with him ever again.

These strange yet amusing tangents are peppered throughout the film, as Tyson’s wounded psyche bobs and weaves, throwing a left hook just when you’re expecting an uppercut. To call him the world’s most interesting train wreck would be too reductive, ignoring his quixotic, enigmatic nature and the calm, collected demeanor that belies the sea of rage and inner turmoil that plagues him to this day. His tough upbringing and vast criminal record are typical of an inner city kid using athletics to escape from poverty, the kind of rags-to-riches story we’ve all heard a million times before. But the implosions, the attempts at self-realization, the contradictions of so many of his words and actions are not those of someone in it merely for self-promotion. Mike Tyson is no reality star looking to capitalize on name recognition, and credit is due to Toback for getting him to talk about anything and everything, even if this decidedly one-sided account always takes him at his word, never providing so much as a hint of a counterbalance. Compelling as Iron Mike is to listen to, it’s hard to fault the filmmaker for not wanting to interrupt him.

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