Beyond the considerable charms of this portrait of champ/bruiser/biter/ex-con Mike Tyson, Tyson serves as an elucidating lesson in looking deeper than the headlines when sizing up a celebrity. In this age of tabloid feeding frenzies, we tend to reduce “scandalous” public figures to a few reductive factoids. In Tyson’s case, we may collectively recognize that, yes, he was a boxer of uncommon pulverizing power, but he was also the guy who gave grief to his first wife, actress Robin Givens, who spent three years in prison on a rape charge, and whose animalistic tendencies were publicly demonstrated-so the story goes-when he took a piece outta Evander Holyfield’s ear during a 1997 boxing match.
Not so fast, says director James Toback. There is more to this man, he suggests, and proves it by patiently exploring the bigger picture and broader story of this mythic American pugilist. He does so in ways both old-fashioned and fresh, relying on the surprisingly candid and self-examining testimony from Tyson himself.
Plenty of archival footage, ring clips, and other visual memorabilia give weight and anecdotal truth to what’s being recounted, but the recounting is the thing, in rambling interviews sans any disruptive interviewer interjections. Tyson, dramatic-looking with his shaved head and Maori warrior tattoo wrapped around his left eye, effectively hypnotizes us on film. He speaks in a particular way, with a particular patois, and a prominent lisp (though one wouldn’t want to point that out within earshot).
He tells of his early life as an innocent boy bullied into toughness, who became a budding thug on the mean streets of Brooklyn. An epiphany in jail-as a preteen-came when he discovered the angst-channeling sport of boxing, and he credits an inspiring early coach, Cus D’Amato, with making him champion material. (He has less fondness for later career-tenders, such as Don King, whom Tyson calls “wretched, slimy, reptilian.”)
Far from being an apologist, Toback paints a cool portrait of a man whose rage and fragile ability to know his own strength has been both his undoing and his path to glory. Boxer fetishism, especially with charismatic figures like Muhammad Ali and Tyson, have to do with the boxer’s agile and pummeled body, brute willpower, and also patter-key ingredients in Tyson, the man, the myth, and now the movie.