Those who think of Mike Tyson as just an animal unleashed upon an unsuspecting world should welcome the alternative perspective provided by “Tyson,” James Toback’s revelatory closeup look at the tumultuous life of the former heavyweight champ. Although straightforward in format, the film capitalizes on an obviously intense connection between filmmaker and subject with psychological acuity and emotional power. Sports fans will get their fill, but the pic’s sensitivity to its exceedingly complicated subject opens up broader commercial horizons in theatrical, TV and homevid worldwide.
Making his second documentary, after 1990’s “The Big Bang,” Toback draws on his long friendship with the boxer (who appeared in Toback’s 1999 feature “Black and White”) by knowing where to probe and how to draw out the famously explosive athlete, even on the touchiest topics. Tyson seems like an open book here, willing to explore every aspect of his life, his painful and embarrassing missteps along with his extraordinary triumphs. The extent of the man’s thoughtfulness, self-awareness and hidden fears will surprise many, most of all non-fans who thought they had him pegged.
In this complex portrait, which never pretends to be “objective” by offering others’ views of the subject, Tyson comes close to seeming like a multiple-personality case — he’s bright but untutored, childlike but brutish, naive but pensive, emotionally needy, excessive in all aspects of his life and, most impressively, willing to take responsibility for everything that’s happened to him — everything, that is, except the rape charge that landed him in prison for three years, something he swears innocence of and that still riles him like nothing else.
Interviewed from multiple angles (sometimes in ’60s-style split-screen) and in different settings, Tyson early on reveals how, as a little kid on Brooklyn’s meanest streets, he was robbed and humiliated by older boys. At the time, he was too scared to fight back, and admits, “I’m afraid of being that way again.”
Not long after, however, he was so infuriated when a thug gratuitously killed one of his pet pigeons that Tyson went wild and beat the kid up. The docu covers some well-worn ground — introduced to boxing at age 12 in juvee, Tyson had the great fortune to be taken under wing by legendary fight trainer Cus D’Amato, who became the father the boy never had — and adds some wonderful early ’80s homevideo footage, which amplifies the verbal impression Tyson offers of D’Amato as a veritable Michelangelo who took the raw material offered by Tyson’s physique and sculpted it into a pugilistic masterpiece.
D’Amato helped Tyson master the mental side of the game. Whatever private fears Tyson may have harbored, one notices in the fight footage that he always psychologically dominated his opponents from the moment he stepped into the ring. Even now, Tyson chokes up when speaking of what D’Amato meant to him, which is just one of several moving interludes the picture delivers.
D’Amato passed away in 1985, a year before Tyson demolished Trevor Berbick to become, at 20, the youngest man ever to win the heavyweight championship.
But while no man was tough enough to take Tyson for some time, his Achilles’ heel proved to be women, a subject Toback gets his subject to address with seeming frankness. Allowing that, while D’Amato was still alive, he had followed the traditional fighters’ rule of abstaining from sex prior to a fight, Tyson admits he was suffering from gonorrhea contracted from a prostitute when he fought Berbick and that his hyperactivity with women in Japan, combined with insufficient training, contributed to his first loss, to Buster Douglas, in 1990.
In between had been his eight-month marriage to actress Robin Givens (“We were just kids”) and a developing taste for strong women he enjoyed dominating sexually. Given his many moods and physical prowess, one could believe Tyson as capable of almost anything, but in context here, the rape case seems out of character. Angry for the only time in the film, he calls out his accuser, Desiree Washington, and says his bitterness over the episode led him never to trust anyone.
Adding to Tyson’s subsequent woes were a falling out with promoter Don King, who he says “would kill his mother for a dollar,” and terrible PR stemming from his ferocious bouts with Evander Holyfield, during the second of which he bit off a piece of his opponent’s ear. His finances in tatters and his heart no longer in it, he took a couple desultory late-career paydays before hanging up his gloves three years ago.
By getting Tyson to open up as he has, Toback has succeeded in illuminating one of the most polarizing, complex and — the film almost forces one to admit — misunderstood figures of our time. In the course of the film, Tyson moves from someone you might think you’d want to steer well clear of to a man you might actually want to meet and speak with, which is a significant accomplishment.
Lingering questions, however, hang over the “blackouts” Tyson increasingly claims he experienced at just the moments when he indulged in his most outrageous, inexplicable behavior. Are these genuine excuses for irresponsibility or possible evidence of brain damage?
Shot on high-def, the film boasts a handsome, color-drenched look, and Larry McConsky’s camera often gets in very tight on the subject just when it counts. Pic honors Tyson’s stature as an exemplary student of boxing with a judicious selection of fight footage; key TV and docu footage, ranging from his bizarre sit-down with Givens for a Barbara Walters interview to his grotesque fulminations at a press conference, fills out the tightly edited feature.