Monday, May 11, 2009

Movie Review: Tyson

Tyson *** ½
Directed By:
James Toback.
Featuring: Mike Tyson.

No matter what you think of Mike Tyson, you have to admit that the man is a fascinating character. He is a man full of contradictions, although I am not sure he really realizes that. In the new documentary by James Toback, Tyson tells his story in his own words. When the movie is over, you feel you have a better understanding of what exactly makes Mike Tyson tick. You may still hate the man, but at least you understand that somewhere underneath his exterior, there is a real person.

Tyson talks in the movie about growing up poor in Brooklyn. He was a fat little kid, and was picked on mercilessly by the other kids. He had no father around, and his mother drifted from one relationship to another. According to Tyson, everything he has done in his life – the good and the bad – sprung up from this upbringing. He hated being physically humiliated as a child, so he set out to make sure it wouldn’t happen again – that he would have to feel that pain again. He drifts into crime, and is sent upstate to a juvenile detention center, where Tyson discovered boxing, which may have ended up saving his life. At 14, he dominated the junior Olympics, scoring knockouts in every fight, including one just 8 seconds into the first round. By 20, he was the heavyweight champion of the world, and being touted as one of the greatest boxers in history. But Tyson’s personal demons destroyed it all.

When he married Robin Givens, he was 22, and she was 23. They had a volatile relationship, and all told were together for less than a year. He was a womanizer, and never stopped when he was married, and he had a quick temper. He may never have physically abusive, but verbally he would lash out. Givens couldn’t take, and left. Tyson got married again, and this time it lasted for 8 years, but again, he continued to cheat, and his wife finally got fed up and left.

When Tyson was convicted of rape, and sentenced to three years in jail, it looked like perhaps everything was over for him. His reputation, never exactly all that spotless in the first place, was tarnished forever, and he missed out on three years in his prime at boxing. He came back though, became heavyweight champion again, and then let all slip away. He didn’t take his opponents seriously, lacked the discipline to keep to train hard enough, and eventually lost the championship again. His fight with Evander Holyfield, which culminated with Tyson biting him not once, but twice, confirmed what everything already thought they knew about Tyson – that he was crazy. His career spurted out. He lost a lot of his money, but he kept fighting, but his heart wasn’t in it anymore.

The director of the film is James Toback, Tyson’s friend, and essentially the movie is made up of a long interview that the two conducted together, interspersed with archival footage of the fights and old interviews (some heavily lifted out of Barbara Kopple’s great documentary on Tyson, Fallen Champ). Toback is a talented writer and director (Two Guys and a Girl, When Will I Be Loved, and of course Black and White, where Tyson played himself). The fact that the two are friends is both the films strength and its weakness. Tyson, who by his own admission, doesn’t trust many people seems at ease with Toback, and doesn’t really try to hide anything. Tyson will tell Toback exactly what he thinks about just about everything, and as such, we get a glimpse into Tyson’s mind that we have never really seen before.

But, it also means that Toback doesn’t push Tyson as hard as someone who wasn’t his friend may have. When he calls the woman he was convicted of raping “lying swine”, and says that he “took advantage of other girls in the past, but not her” Toback just leaves it at that. He doesn’t appear to ask what Tyson means by “took advantage” – did Tyson just confess that he raped other girls in the past, just not the one he was convicted of raping? Are we supposed to feel sorry for Tyson? Tyson also places all the blame for the biting on Holyfield. Tyson had a cut over his eye, and Holyfield kept hitting it with his head, sending Tyson into a rage where he could not control himself, so he bite him. It would be interesting to know if Tyson felt this way often in the ring, or just near the end of his career, when his speed and strength started to fail him. This is a common theme throughout the movie – something bad happens to Tyson, and he places the blame on others. I wish Toback would have challenged Tyson a little more on many of these issues.

But then, perhaps, the movie would have been different. If Toback treated Tyson like any other reporter, then Tyson could have easily shut down, or flown into one of his rages. We are well aware when watching this movie that there is another side to everything Tyson says, but the movie doesn’t dwell on those – we’ve heard them before we stepped into the theater anyway. This is Tyson in his own words, and he is fascinating to watch.

In the past few weeks and months, I have been dedicating a lot of time to two things – Martin Scorsese and school shootings – and I saw echoes of both in this movie. Like many kids who eventually shoot up their school, Tyson was humiliated as a kid, and decided to fight back using violence. True, he found a more constructive, or at least acceptable, outlet for his rage, but the psychology is pretty much the same. But I think that if you were going to make an honest feature film about the life of Mike Tyson, it would very much resemble Scorsese’s Raging Bull. A man who was an animal inside the ring, who could never quite control himself outside the ring either. But like LaMotta in the last scene of Raging Bull, Tyson now seems at peace with himself. He not be any better than he once was, but at least now he understands himself and better and accepts it. Coming to this realization while watching Tyson, I wasn’t sure if I should be happy for him, or just sad.

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