Mike Tyson -- he never gets boring, huh?
These days, it's hard to tell whether people are still intrigued by him because he's a sports icon or because he's a self-destructive, headline-launching lightning rod for scandal and controversy. Either way, he always ends up in the public eye. He even shows up on rare occasions to make fun of himself, as evidenced by his self-mocking, already hyped cameo in "The Hangover," also coming out today.
Tyson has lived quite a life so far. His story, best described as a cautionary tale of perseverance, is told by the man himself in "Tyson," the new documentary from director James Toback. In language that's both capriciously erudite (he actually uses the word "skullduggery" a couple of times) and unabashedly profane (this is Iron Mike, after all), Tyson sits down and lays out his own oral history -- highs, lows, mistakes, triumphs, passions, regrets. You might not like some of what he has to say, but at least he's trying to come clean.
From the way Mike tells it, he grew up a scared, little boy in Brooklyn, later adapting to the treacherous thug lifestyle that went hand-in-hand with that city's streets back then. It looked like he was destined for a life of correctional facilities until a boxing instructor at one of them hooked him up with Cus D'Amato, the pro trainer who became his guardian and shaped him into a young fighting machine. D'Amato died in 1985; the loss of such a strong father figure is obviously something Tyson hasn't gotten over, since even talking about D'Amato causes the usally stonefaced Tyson to break down in tears.
Tyson's D'Amato years appear to be the only time Tyson was ever fully grounded, as the movie's remaining time is devoted to Tyson's making one grand misstep after another. For a man who won his first WBC heavyweight title at age 20, while also fighting a nasty case of gonorrhea (which he says he either got from a prostitute or "a very filthy woman"), it's no question Tyson's head became as massive as his punch. And yet, as Tyson recalls all the times he should've done this instead of that, it begins to become a bit repetitive after awhile. You begin to wonder how many times a man can screw up before he knocks some sense into his own head?
Most of the time, he blames himself. He has kind words for first wife Robin Givens, who he wishes he could've stayed in contact with after their notoriously rocky eight-month marriage; and even James "Buster" Douglas, who knocked Tyson off his undisputed throne in Japan in 1990. Who he doesn't have love for is that "wretched swine of a woman" Desiree Washington. Tyson was convicted of raping Washington, a Miss Black America contestant, and spent three years in prison (he still denies that he raped her). Then there's boxing promoter Don King, whom he calls "reptilian." Tyson once beat down King outside The Beverly Hills Hotel, in front of a bunch of "old white ladies," for stealing his money.
While watching "Tyson," viewers may be taken aback by the archival footage Toback accumulates of Tyson in the ring, proving that Tyson was one of the fastest, most focused, most powerful fighters around. Seeing Tyson this way is both a joy and a shock, since it reminds you of the agile, pulverizing pugilist he was instead of the national punchline he's become. Just watching him bob and weave is nearly glorious.
Unfortunately, seeing Tyson fight in his later years is a sadder sight, as his volatile behavior outside the ring eventually crept inside. Watching him bite a piece off Evander Holyfield's ear (Tyson says Holyfield started it by head-butting him) is one thing, but watching him halfheartedly stay on his toes as some young punk works on him -- well, that's just pitiful.
Whenever Toback has his camera (or cameras, as the screen is often filled with more than one shot of the man) on Tyson, it always borders on the fetishistic. It's something he's done with Tyson in previous films. (In his 2000 movie "Black and White" Toback had Tyson, playing himself, get hit on by both Brooke Shields and Robert Downey Jr. in the same scene.) In "Tyson," Tyson's burnt-sienna complexion almost glows in Toback's lens.
Anyone who's seen Toback's previous films knows the man views strong, fearless, African-American men as objects of envy, wisdom and lust. (For more on this, find Toback's first movie, "Fingers," and witness the raw, scary sexuality that occurs when Toback has Jim Brown -- his Tyson of the '70s -- make out with two white women while Harvey Keitel impotently watches.) It isn't even that much of a surprise to find Toback coming to Tyson's aid with this movie, painting him as a humbled, vulnerable figure who deserves your pity even when he still comes off a bit volatile. (His riffs on what he wants from a woman may cause the most dissension with audiences.)
This review was supposed to break down the fascinating mess that is both Mike Tyson and the film he stars in. Unfortunately, given the recent tragic news of his 4-year-old daughter, Exodus, who died after accidentally strangling herself, "Tyson" carries a more heartbreaking, troublesome weight. "Tyson" is supposed to be a portrait of a scarred, tormented man finally at peace -- or, at least, trying to gain some peace -- with himself. (He says his kids are what keep him grounded now.) Now, viewers will most likely leave this movie wondering if this man will ever find peace.
I certainly hope he does.