Film Review: Tyson

Film Review:
Directed by James Toback
90 min Documentary
Sony Pictures Classics, 2009

Mike Tyson has always been one of those tragic prominent American figures whose achievements were unfairly overshadowed by his mishaps in life. Like Michael Jackson (from the incredible Thriller to his legal adventures in Neverland), Phil Spector (music revolutionary to big haired, gun toting murderer) or even President Bill Clinton (from the political arena changing “war room” to Monicagate), it’s easy to forget how incredible these individuals once were.

James Toback’s new documentary Tyson makes no attempts at debunking boxing champ Mike Tyson’s various conundrums over the years. Yes, he had a reputation for mistreating woman. Yes, he was a sexual deviant. Yes, he once bit Evander Holyfield’s ear, twice to be exact! In Tyson, Toback lets the cameras roll as Tyson reveals his remarkable life story from doomed street hood to an extremely young heavyweight champion of the world to gossip page luminary.

In 1986 at the terribly immature age of 20 “Iron Mike” won his first world title after knocking out Trevor Berbick in the second round. That prior to this monumental win Tyson had won 26 of his first 28 fights with a knockout, many within the first round, makes his early feats inside the ring all the more remarkable.

The first half of Tyson follows the same routine sports film formula, showing the contender rise from rags to riches through hard work, determination and a supporting mentor figure, in Tyson’s case, veteran manager Cus D’Amato.

He survives the perilous streets of his childhood and finds a constructive outlet for his anger with the gloves. The fight footage is enthralling (he truly was a powerhouse of a boxer) and his explanation of tactics like, “always trying to aim through the back of my opponents head, trying to find my punch going through and ending out the back of the head” is terrifying. When you realize how young and more importantly how naïve Tyson was when he was thrust onto the world stage, it’s a lot easier to find empathy in his downfalls over the years.

The father-like D’Amato brings out the confidence in Tyson but also unleashes the animal that made him such a ferocious force inside the ring. D’Amato’s premature death isn’t examined to great lengths in Tyson but it’s evident that it was a major catalyst for Tyson’s isolation in the world. 

Weaving together modern day interview footage with footage from his various fights, Toback succeeds in shedding the limelight on Tyson’s extraordinary rise. The latter half of the film focuses on Tyson’s rough maturation.

There is no excusing Tyson for his poor choices along the way (his sexual escapades, drug/alcohol abuse, violence outside of the ring), no matter how many teary eyed interviews Toback includes. In many ways the film’s failures are found in its glossing over of certain key events, most notably the Desiree Washington rape trial, which was a legal nightmare for Tyson who was notoriously misrepresented by the defense team chosen by Don King. 

Some of the film’s multiple screen editing with overlapping dialogue is distracting to the flow (especially considering Tyson’s high pitched speech impediment), however, overall the film succeeds in its attempt to allow an older Tyson tell his side of his life story once and for all. 

For boxing fanatics Tyson may not be the most revealing film to document Tyson’s career. His notoriety within that world still stands tall, however, for those of us who primarily followed his career through the scandalous five o’clock news spotlights the film is a refreshing reminder of how prolific he was as a fighter (seriously, in one fight Tyson admits to sparring with his opponent while suffering from a nasty case of gonorrhea, which he may or may not of contracted from a hooker). 

The tale of the soul who threw it all away is a common one. With Tyson, Toback captures the tragedy of Mike Tyson’s career not by focusing on his misfortunes in life but of the little moments that shaped who he was and is today. By the time the film comes to his lackluster swan song in 2005 against contender Kevin McBride, Tyson appears relieved of the weight of having to be number one. While it’s hard to find admiration in his monetary cop out, fighting McBride solely for the payoff, void of any passion for the sport, Tyson seems wiser and at peace in his later years.

The film’s closing moment, set to Tyson’s somber wheezing breaths in the background, is terribly unglamorous for a film documenting a raging bull of a fighter like Tyson. Still the somber finale is fitting knowing what we now know about Kid Dynamite.