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“Tyson,” a new documentary about the former heavyweight champ, is like a well-worn joke. You know how the story goes; the power lies in the telling.
Here the telling is done to great effect by Mike Tyson, and only by Mike Tyson. The documentary is not an exercise in objectivity; it is a 90-minute monologue, interspersed with plenty of archival footage. Perhaps we should be suspicious of this format. Is this a ploy to raise money for a man who needs it, who at the end of his career fought only for a paycheck? Is it a manipulative attempt to create sympathy for a much-maligned figure, or even to justify criminal deeds for which he stands convicted? But once the end credits roll, these questions seem moot. The film presents a credible character study. Here Tyson is not the cartoon that he so often appears; he is a thoughtful, articulate individual — albeit one whose life arc seems something out of fiction.
“Tyson” doesn't contain much revealing information, though the boxer's description of a physical confrontation in which he publicly “stomped” the “slimy, reptilian” promoter Don King appears to be previously unreported. Iron Mike's victories and failings are public record: his years as a petty criminal on the streets of Brooklyn and the mentorship of a trainer who adopted him as a son; the trainer's death and Tyson's rise to become the youngest man to unify boxing's heavyweight belts; his subsequent loss of the title to underdog Buster Douglas and imprisonment for rape; his repeated comeback attempts, rarely without drama, as when he bit off part of Evander Holyfield's ear and broke down crying during his final match, which he refused to finish. Like Muhammad Ali, he has always been a motor-mouth, but unlike Ali his loquaciousness has only served to confirm his emotional instability.
Here Tyson's stream of words imparts a sort of craziness different from the angry kind he's known for. They show instead a fundamental disconnect with the world. (At one point he describes $20 million as a “small amount of money.”)
Part of the reason the portrait is so believable is because Tyson exhibits a clear knowledge of right and wrong, and even a sense of guilt, when rehashing his past. He makes few excuses for his behavior — and the ones he does make are transparent or contradictory. Describing the notorious fight with Holyfield, he says he “blacked out” before biting him; he also “blacked out” when stomping King. Discussing the beauty pageant contestant he went to jail for raping, he says, “I may have taken advantage of women before, but not her.”
James Toback's direction, while generally strong, tends to overemphasize Tyson's fragility. He has Tyson talk in multiple frames simultaneously to emphasize his subject's confusion; shots of a pensive Tyson walking on the beach at sunset add to the pathos. There are some holes as well; more information about behind-the-scenes battles among Tyson's promoters would have been appreciated. But these directorial choices can't subtract from the boxer's personal story, or from the convincing emotion he brings to it.
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