(Sony Pictures Classics; US theatrical: 24 Apr 2009 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 27 Mar 2009 (General release); 2009)
He remains an enigma, a brutal man with the gentle voice that literally took his sport to the heights of popularity, and then brought it crashing down around him when his ever-present vices overwhelmed his always scattered judgment. He was a powerhouse unable to contain his animalistic rage, a strategist who often resorted to pure physicality to defeat his opponents. As a legend, as a myth, Mike Tyson defies easy comparison. He lacks the activist spirit of those who came before him, but he also clouds the conversation over any current heavyweight champion. Now, as boxing dies its MMA trampled death, filmmaker James Toback sits down with the dethroned titan for a one-on-one that feeds into most people’s perspective of the man while offering enlightenment on subjects that heretofore remained unexplored.
Tyson’s story is no different from an entire generation of disaffected black youth. He grew up in a broken home, his mother and relatives so promiscuous that his concepts of sex were blurred and bruised at an early age. Running with the wrong crowd led to random crimes, easy money, and a stint in juvenile hall. A lack of discipline and a hard head took him upstate to more “authoritative” digs. There, he meets a mentor who eventually introduces him to boxing guru Cus D’Amato. Under the wise old man’s strict tutelage, Tyson learns there is more to the sport than punching power. For his elderly instructor, boxing is about the mind, not just the manner.
With the focus provided, Tyson becomes a champion. With the spoils of any conquering warrior come the typical fame game trappings. Sadly, the young man, barely into his 20s, gives into many of them. A highly publicized marriage and divorce, a rape charge and jail term, and a series of spectacular/specious fights turn the world icon into a jaded, disenfranchised joke. Now he wonders, in his early 40s, what he will do with the rest of his life. With the help of archival footage and an incredibly candid back and forth with the subject himself, Toback takes everything we know about the man and filters it through a viewpoint veiled in a kind of denial and an unequaled sense of personal shame and pride.
This is a gutsy move on Tyson’s part. He realizes that, no matter what he says, there will be a contingency that sees through his so-called “excuses” and infers things into his words that really aren’t there. At the beginning, when he cries over his time with D’Amato and the number of juvenile titles he’s won, there’s an honesty and vulnerability that sheds new light on his character. But when we get to the Evander Holyfield fight and the infamous ear bite, the repeated mantra of “headbutt - revenge” grows old. Tyson has a lot of those moments, well measured out explanations for elements of his life that require a more profound insight. It’s not quite rehearsal. Instead, it’s the words of someone who has had plenty of time to think about his particular lot, and has come up with a complete set of well rationalized answers that he believes will quiet the critics - or if not silence them, give them a bit more backstory to chew on.
Yet Tyson also recognizes his flaws. He realizes his lustful appetites, especially for women, got him in more trouble personally and legally than he should have ever experienced (his comments about the crime that got him sent away for three years are particularly brutal in their direct disdain). He freely admits to letting “leeches” suck away his money, making his last few fights all about the paycheck. He never defends his words, using a sideshow carnival barker strategy of promotion to explain his often outrageous words. There are times when he ties himself to individuals he’s not worthy of being associated with (Muhammad Ali is name checked, and Jack Johnson is referenced as well), but Tyson never forgets that boxing is basically an individual sport. It was he who came so prepared for his first fights that they barely lasted beyond the first round. It was also he who enjoyed the party aspects of his persona to the point where he, physically, couldn’t handle the competition.
For his part, Toback knows he has a live wire on his hands and never lets the camera leave him for long. This is not a standard exercise in talking heads. Tyson is the only voice we hear, except for various ring announcers and close confidants offered during the insert material. The camera stays close, never really leaving the ex-champs face, and the lisp that many have laughed over throughout the years is here, even more pronounced than before. Toback wants a linear story - childhood to fame to fall to fatherhood (Tyson’s new role is as able daddy to his six kids) - and he basically gets one, allowing the audience to drink in the totality of the man’s ludicrous existence. Time disappears for some of the discussion, our frame of reference forgetting that Tyson was barely 20 when he won his first heavyweight title, and not even thirty when he exited an Indiana prison. As he says at one point during the course of the conversation, he’s lived a whole lotta life in his merely 42 years on the planet.
That’s perhaps why Tyson isn’t the apology everyone is looking for. It is not a mea culpa meant to resurrect his reputation and rebuild his professional mantle. At his age, he is unsure what he will do next. There is no George Forman like resurrection in the future, the goodwill he built up three decades ago all spent on a wine, women, and the same old hard luck song. He maintains a friendly relationship with his ex, honors his numerous tattoos, prays to Allah (he defends Islam as the religion of love), recognizes his shortcomings without striving to fully correct them, and appears content to let the rest of the world define him as monster…or misbegotten hero. While there have been better documentaries on the subject of fallen idols, the gladiatorial nature of Tyson’s trip through the fame machine is fascinating in its own right. Because it’s personal, it matter - even if the end result is no more clear than the mystery that is the man himself.