Tyson - Film Review

Posted on 19. Apr, 2009 by in Film/TV

by Brent Simon

2005’s Unleashed starred Bob Hoskins as a particularly nasty gangster and Jet Li, who’s been literally raised as a caged dog, as his feral, martial arts-gifted enforcer. At the time it seemed a silly conceit for an action film, something just outrageous enough to serve as a juicy hook while also providing a modicum of emotional mooring so that Li could crack skulls in sympathetic fashion as he moved toward becoming a self-actualized adult.
Strangely, it was Unleashed that first came to mind while watching James Toback’s Tyson, a gripping documentary about the former undisputed heavyweight champion who flamed out in a haze of drugs, car crashes, and outside-the-ring violence and criminal behavior. After all, despite standing under six feet and never topping 219 pounds during his professional career, Mike Tyson comes across here as less human and more the original “manimal,” a fierce, brutal and unrelentingly single-minded boxing machine who took no mercy on opponents because none was ever taken on him in adolescence.
Tyson grabs viewers from the first frame. An exercise in subjectivity (Tyson is the only present-day interviewee, though others are glimpsed in archival footage), the film cuts a cursory swath through his heartbreaking childhood in poverty-stricken Brooklyn, and quickly hones in on Tyson’s relationship with Cus D’Amato. A trainer who helped rescue Tyson from juvenile detention, D’Amato became his legal guardian in 1984, taking the teenager into his own home and giving focus to his rage before dying of pneumonia at 77 years of age. With the same management team put in place by D’Amato overseeing his life, both personally and professionally, Tyson would be able to stay focused for four or five more years before spiraling wildly out of control. A turbulent one-year marriage to actress Robin Givens – which spawned headlines about car crashes, money squabbles, drunken screaming matches and worse – yielded a divorce, followed by depression, drug abuse, professional humiliation, and all manner of wildly antisocial behavior.
It would be easy to open the movie with footage of Tyson’s stunning loss to Buster Douglas – perhaps the biggest upset ever in an individual sport – but Toback instead showcases the 20-year-old Tyson’s first title fight, a destruction of Trevor Berbick. This savvy reset is a smart approach, as it whets one’s appetite, no matter how much they may or may not know about Tyson or his fight career, for an exploration of exactly how the failure of this unstoppable athletic specimen
came to unfold.
Using a slightly overlapping dialogue technique, as well as occasionally shifting split screens, Toback infuses the movie with a sense of restlessness and kinetic energy, which is certainly in keeping with its subject’s digressive mindset. The portrait that slowly emerges, in Polaroid-esque fashion, is a heartbreakingly conflicting one, of both wounded child and raging beast. Tyson is like the tangled mess of cords behind your television entertainment center; all raw nerve endings and intense surface feelings, he’s an emotional, unchecked id without any of the adult tools – in terms of either formal education or mooring life experiences – to substantively cope with his problems.
As a film, Tyson’s only uncomfortable failing, really, has to do with the lens of subjectivity – otherwise a strong point – that it refuses to modify when it comes to the boxer’s rape conviction and other charges of domestic abuse. While Tyson does address each of these incidents, he has previously proven himself to be an unreliable or vague narrator (sometimes charmingly so), and the short shrift given these serious incidents feels a bit unseemly. The omission of certain biographical facts (Tyson’s father, whom he never knew, is said to have fathered 16 kids), or a bit more about the therapy, if any, that has calmed Tyson would have also helped round and deeper shade the movie, but as is it remains a fascinating portrait of an unlikely but oddly compelling modern-day Shakespearean figure. (Sony Pictures Classics, R, 90 minutes)

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One Response to “Tyson - Film Review”

  1. Kabir

    28. Apr, 2009

    Great film, simply loved i.

    Reply to this comment

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