May 14, 2009

REVIEW: Tyson (A-)

(Tyson opens tomorrow at the Landmark Edina Cinema)

For as much international fame and fortune he once acquired for knowing his way around a boxing ring, Mike Tyson rarely received due praise for knowing his way around a dictionary. This is a guy who uses the word "skullduggery" twice in Tyson, once to blistering effect and once to confusing neglect. My point is: when was the last time you heard someone use "skullduggery" to any effect?

Tyson's vocabulary is one of many fascinating revelations brought to light in James Toback's absorbing documentary, described by Toback himself as an "expurgatory confession" in a discussion he led following a screening of Tyson at MSPIFF several weeks back. Toback and Tyson have been close pals for going on 25 years now, and the film developed as spontaneously and quickly as a Tyson first-round knockout.

Mulling over ideas for an affordable film a few years ago, Toback thought of interviewing Tyson, who had recently checked into a rehab clinic in Southern California after one of his many post-boxing arrests on drug charges. Toback called the clinic and worked out an arrangement where he could take Tyson off site for 10 hours a day. Three weeks after he first had the idea, shooting commenced at a rented house in Malibu. In what must be considered one of the most fascinating interview techniques used in a film, Toback actually sat on the floor behind the couch in which Tyson sat, facing the camera. The men couldn't see each other, and Toback asked few if any questions, simply allowing Tyson to release whatever was coming out of him, which, considering the state of mind he was in at the time, was some heavy stuff. Occasionally there would be long (15 min.) stretches of silence, during which Tyson would glance around somewhat confused before re-opening the valve and casually continuing.

I feel it's important to describe Toback's method because the resulting material is essentially a man's soul released on screen, most importantly on his own terms. It is a self-portrait of the Tyson that Tyson would want you to know, the Tyson that Toback in fact does know, and the Tyson that few people in the world have ever known. Tyson's admission that, for example, he was extremely fearful - not nervous, but truly in fear - walking into every ring is an earth-shattering disclosure, like finding out Michael Jordan was actually left-handed. It's really enough to make you see the athlete (and Tyson is an athlete above all else) in a completely different light, and in this case begin to understand not only what motivated him on the way to the top, but what continued to haunt him when he had reached rock-bottom (quitting in the 7th round of his final bout, in 2005 against Kevin McBride).

Indeed, the psyche of Mike Tyson is different than the psyche of most boxers, because the life experience of Tyson is different than the life experience of almost any other boxer. Growing up in crack-addled projects of 1980's Brooklyn, Tyson was ridiculed as a child, arrested dozens of times as an adolescent, and orphaned as a 16 year-old when his mother died (his father had left the family years earlier). Taken in by boxing trainer Cus D'Amato, he developed not only a respect for the sport, but respect for himself, for others, for life in general. Discussing how much of his success, self-worth, ability and confidence he gained from D'Amato, Tyson is brought to tears. He knows, and we know, that D'Amato saved his life.

Which is what makes the rest of his troubles following D'Amato's death so tragic to watch. The rape conviction, the financial disasters, the ear biting, the embarrassing soundbites (threatening to eat Lennox Lewis' children). While his career peaked years after D'Amato was gone, he never seemed to regain control of a life that was careening into chaos. This arc is completely captured in Tyson, and it feels emotionally honest.

Toback tries a few different methods to illustrate the puzzle that is Mike Tyson's life, cutting the screen up into pieces and fading one monologue into another, though it comes off as unnecessarily artistic, or as an effort to keep us engaged because he doesn't trust our attention span. But the archival footage breaks up the talking quite nicely, and besides, enough of what he is saying is so intriguing that you can't help but lean in to listen. Toback himself admits that of all the films he's made, Tyson is the only one that he simply can't turn off; he becomes hypnotized.

Despite the number of new realizations you may have about "Iron Mike", however, such as how incredibly young he was during the troubled years of his career, there are almost as many ideas about him that are confirmed. I've always thought being on the receiving end of a frenzied, bare-knuckled Tyson uppercut or hook would result in certain death. Seeing footage of his earlier fights again and now knowing what mental energy he was putting into those punches, my theory must be true. Additionally, Tyson's notoriously scary attitude toward women is essentially cemented when, in full rehab mode, he lets loose with a disturbing admission of how he sees women and wants to "dominate" them. It's the one characteristic of him that I'm unable to reconcile in any meaningful way, even taking into account his troubled upbringing.

It's tempting to say that Tyson is a documentary meant to portray Mike Tyson as a human instead of a monster, but Tyson himself addresses this misrepresentation head on. He says he's not a "monster", and despite all of his flaws and faults and follies, Tyson is a deserved opportunity for one fascinating human to tell his own fascinating story.

Writing - N/A
Acting - N/A
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 10
Music - 5
Social Significance - 4

Total: 27/30= 90% = A-


  1. He also once said that he was going to knock his opponent into Bolivia.

  2. My favorite was always his boast about making Tony Tucker's face "look like hamburger".

    Watch the trailer for more fun with words - he met the "President of Istanbul". But honestly, for as much as he's ridiculed for his language usage, he's disarmingly articulate when he nails words like "skullduggery". I wish I knew someone who was that entertaining with their vocabulary.

    Also, one additional note about fear. For as much as we learn about Tyson's fear heading into the ring, it's truly breathtaking to see him describe the terror he saw in his opponents, and when he knew he'd won a fight - almost always before they even touched gloves. Michael Spinks literally looked like he'd seen a ghost before the first bell sounded.

    Anyway, come back and expound after you see it. I'm charmed that I witnessed both Tyson-Holyfield I & II in your basement.

  3. Common uses skullduggery every day on KFAN. You'll need to try harder then that Dan.

    Ph yes, and their is no way this film is an A-. C- maybe. The whole thing feels like a wasted opportunity.

  4. Yeah but Common Man sounds, at least to me, pained in trying to use as many words as he does, and often repetitively. I appreciate his vocabulary, but Tyson's just flows more naturally and I don't sense any pretension.

    And regarding the grade, well I'd have to take down the production aspects quite a bit more to get that low. Emotionally I thought it was pretty riveting, as well as funny and tragic at times.

    Somebody asked Toback why he didn't interview other people about Tyson or show him doing mundane things everyday, living his life. He responded that, aside from the fact that Tyson was literally in a rehab center at the time, he didn't think anything else would allow for such cathartic candidness from Tyson. Yes, Tyson is one of the film's producers, but I'm willing to accept it as his message to the world, something more personal than an E! True Hollywood Story. It felt honest to me, though maybe I was suckered in by Toback's comments.

    Were you hoping for something more probing?

  5. I was hoping for something resembling honesty. This felt like a glorified press tour, complete with multiple shots of Tyson standing on the beach, contemplating his life as waves crash around him. The fallen hero, wondering how to regain his glory. The entire production felt disingenuous and manipulative.

  6. Agreed that the beach scenes were a bit much. I don't know why Toback wanted to stage that out, just as I don't know why he thought the split-screen stuff would be so symbolic. But I still didn't think it was disingenuous. The guy basically became a pariah in the boxing world, and I thought this was more than we've heard about his downfall.

    I will say that a few more years might have added some perspective to his life outside of boxing. Even Toback admitted that Tyson doesn't really know what he's doing next or how to live his life after boxing, hence all the trouble. So in one sense maybe it was a little early for this.

  7. I loved this film. Others have criticized it for offering nothing more about Tyson that we haven't already seen. I disagree. Tyson's inability to omit revealing and sometimes incriminating details about his life is riveting.

  8. Thanks for visiting and commenting, Eric. I also thought it offered some new information, particularly about his childhood and especially about his mindset entering the ring. Of course, as I mentioned, I also thought it revealed that some of the "unfortunate opinions" he's been accused of having just may be true.

    I have to say, I reacted to the tragic death of his 4 year-old daughter differently after seeing this movie, especially since she makes an appearance. The guy is rough around the edges, sure, but you can imagine how crushing this must have been for him.


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