Saturday, June 20, 2009


It was pretty much a given that I was going to like Tyson - the only thing in question was how much was I going to like a movie that is basically ninety minutes of Mike Tyson sitting on a couch and talking about himself. He wasn’t exactly eloquent when he was in prime condition, back in the days when he had never even been knocked down, never mind knocked out. Now, however, he’s been to prison, been knocked down half a dozen times, and knocked out at least a handful of times. His boxing career is over, the end having come four years ago in a match he fought for no other reason than to get the paycheck.

So whence a feature-length documentary? Part of the answer to that question lies in the fact that Tyson’s friend James Toback directed the picture, but I don’t know if that’s enough to sell a movie all on its own; no, the bigger answer to that question is that former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson is still a compelling figure, though I don’t mean that in an entirely good way. Tyson’s personal life was pretty much always a train wreck, and made the requisite tabloid (and legitimate press) headlines back in the day; but you have to remember that this is a cat who was heavyweight champion of the world at the age of twenty. The number of people who have been heavyweight champion of the world earlier in their lives than Tyson is zero.

This is a puff piece, to be sure - none of the players in his life at whom he hurls invectives - mostly Desiree Washington and Don King - are given the opportunity to defend themselves - but it doesn’t smack of the hagiography of a Beyond The Sea or Gonzo, either. It’s also not exactly a mea culpa for all of the bad behavior that he indulged in, both inisde and (mostly) outside the ring; but there is an acknowledgement on Tyson’s part - not only that there was bad behavior, but that it was this bad behavior, which he brought largely on himself, that kept him from achieving all that he should have achieved in boxing.

And what he should have achieved in boxing is the designation as the greatest heavyweight who ever lived. Much attention is paid early on to Tyson’s first trainer and manager, the legendary Cus D’Amato, who took the young street punk from Brooklyn - who cops to his first arrest at the age of twelve - into his home and honed Tyson into such a ferocious fighter that first round knockouts came to be de rigeur. During the Olympic trials in 1980, Tyson knocked a dude out in eight seconds. Eight years later, in what is considered the peak of his career, he dispatched former heavyweight champion Michael Spinks - who had never been knocked down prior to his fight with Tyson, never mind knocked out - in 91 seconds. Spinks’ record going into the Tyson fight was 31-0. He never fought again.

The film progresses chronologically from Tyson’s early days as a fighter to the present, which finds him the father of six children - though since the film wrapped, one of his daughters died in a tragic accident at home, less than one month ago - and doing the best he can to get on with life after boxing; and the film is what it is - almost entirely Mike Tyson telling his own story. Other than some odd visual frames - oddly reminiscent of the itself-odd Mike Figgis picture Time Code - that create sort of an echo effect during portions of the narration, there is little evidence of any attempt to manipulate what we see. There is editing, of course - Toback gives us the picture he wants us to see - but aside from presenting only Tyson’s part of the story, the film doesn’t really pull any punches, so to speak. There may be different versions of how he got to where he is in life at the moment, but the person speaking to the camera is clearly a beaten man; and to hear the former so-called “baddest man on the planet” speaking with such candor is often oddly startling.

How much did I like it, then? I have to say that I liked it a lot, even if it might not have been, ahem...fair and balanced; and really, though, everything other than the sordid details of what went on in that hotel room with Washington has been pretty well aired out in public. This is Tyson in his own words, and it’s not meant to be perfect, or necessarily complete; it is meant only to be a brief look into the soul of a complicated, troubled person - and in that regard it’s a tremendous success.

No comments: