Friday, May 29, 2009

An Indepth Look At Mike Tyson, From The Man Himself

Love him or hate him, Mike Tyson is inarguably one of popular culture’s most fascinating figures. In this riveting documentary portrait of the controversial boxer, filmmaker and friend James Toback lets Tyson tell his own volatile story right here. This is Tyson.

No other sporting figure has ever been afforded so much screen time for self-revelation: just another instance of Iron Mike's one-of-a-kind status. It all started in a rough-and-tumble Brooklyn neighborhood, where Tyson was picked on and beaten up as a youngster. But when he turned his fear into anger, he realized that his fists had the ferocity to frighten everyone around him. As a teenager, Tyson moved upstate to live with trainer Cus D’Amato, who became the devoted and compassionate father figure he never had. This support helped Tyson develop the strength and focus needed to become a devastating champion inside the ring. But when D’Amato died, something inside Tyson died too, turning him into an even more dangerous monster outside of the ring. As Tyson speaks openly about the ups and downs in his tumultuous life--alternating between moments of sincere introspection and animalistic rage--Toback employs a split-screen approach to further emphasize his emotionally unstable nature. Mixed into this talking-head monologue is striking archival footage that shows Tyson in his prime, when he was one of the most feared and idolized athletes on the planet. Tyson is an appropriately subjective journey into the mind of a massively complicated man. Mike Tyson would be close to last on anyone's list of people requiring sympathy. For many years, beginning in the mid-1980s, the "Baddest Man on the Planet" held or contested the heavyweight boxing crown through physical prowess and intimidation. During a grudge match in 1997, he chewed off part of the ear of rival Evander Holyfield. Outside the ring, Tyson lived as if laws and social graces were designed for lesser beings. The law, at least, caught up with him: Tyson spent three years in jail in the early 1990s on a rape conviction. But there are always tales and tears behind the headlines, and here they are. Turns out that big, bad Mike, the man with fists of iron and a giant flame tattoo on his face, is deep down a misunderstood softie. He was bullied at school, taunted for keeping pet pigeons and generally treated like a dumb lisping lug from Brooklyn. He says he learned to fight because, "I'm just afraid of being treated that way again." Like a man in a 12-step program – he also spent time in rehab – the ex-champ confesses his sins in straight-to-camera testimonials. Toback, who normally deals in dramatic narratives of jocks, playboys and thugs, lets his subject speak at length, interspersed with archival and split-screen footage of the boxer in action. "I have to be honest, I'm a jerk sometimes," Tyson says, presenting himself as a man who just loves life too much for his own good. Convenient memory lapses and the strong aroma of self-interest taint his contrition. That ear-biting incident? "I blacked out." His reluctance to take "no" in bed? "I love saying `no' all the time when I'm making love." That stormy marriage to Robin Givens? "We were just kids." The estimated $300-to-$400 million in earnings he blew? "Old too soon, smart too late."Still, it's fascinating to hear Tyson speak. No one pretends that the documentary is objective appraisal – there are almost no commentators besides Tyson himself. Toback, himself a man of many avowed vices, is sympathetic without being naive. But he's also not inclined to go after Tyson, and his instincts are correct. With a subject this eager for self-immolation, it seems almost cruel to pile more logs on the fire. Toback fashions a sharp doc out of a blunt object.

Mike Tyson is thoughtful. Huh? The documentary movie Tyson reveals a Mike Tyson I can almost guarantee you haven't seen before. Hardly anyone thinks of former boxer Tyson as articulate and sincere. But director James Toback does and captures these qualities in a fascinating, sympathetic portrait. Tyson is a film of vast surprises. Many of us know Tyson as the bull of a fighter who bit part of Evander Holyfield's ear off, and lost a fight to Buster Douglas as more than a 40-1 favorite. Some view Tyson as a bum whom wife Robin Givens accused of abuse in a tv interview with Barbara Walters and who was imprisoned for rape (of Miss Black America contestant Desiree Washington). Most people have a negative image of Tyson. Toback sets out to at least qualify that -- and perhaps change it totally. He very well may have succeeded. The first thing that surprised me was that Tyson is much more articulate than I thought. He uses such words as "surreal," "erudites" (although he uses it as a noun not an adjective), "self-aggrandizing," "and "immature," and he uses the adverb "badly" correctly. Tyson misuses "fellatio," but nobody's perfect. A second surprise is Tyson's sincerity. Although we may have a nagging suspicion that we're not getting the full picture, Tyson's humility and accountability seem sincere. So too do his tears for mentor and father figure Cus D'Amato. A third surprise is that Tyson was a student of boxing. When he was a young fighter with D'Amato, night after night he watched footage of the great fighters of the past, studying their moves and strategies. We know that Ali used psychology both in the ring and out of it, but Tyson too was well aware of how to use it. How much of it is he using on us in the movie? Another surprise is Tyson's sensitivity. Obviously we know he had a dark side --callous brutality was often his calling card. The film's ugliest scene is footage of a press conference when Tyson screamed vulgar racist rages at a heckler. But the documentary shows a calmer side that heretofore basically has been hidden. Perhaps the biggest surprise is how accountable Tyson seems. He doesn't blame anybody else for his actions. He gives reasons -- not excuses -- about how immaturity, inexperience, background, and his demons at times ruled his life. Another surprise is that Tyson admits he always was afraid. Mike Tyson scared? I didn't realize that when he fought Holyfield, Tyson had been head-butted by Evander. In the second fight it drew blood. Tyson looked at the referee, got no reaction, then went "totally insane at that moment." On occasion Tyson is contradictory. He calls promoter Don King "wretched" and "reptilian." Then says he loved King. Which was it? Probably both. Mike Tyson is not a simple man. Director James Toback (The Gambler -- 1974), who has had his own demons, is able to humanize his galvanizing subject. He also employs some great fight footage, and uses a scene of Tyson walking on the beach by the ocean as Tyson quotes from Oscar Wilde's poem "The Ballad of Reading Gaol." It is a cheeky scene, but it works. Wilde and Tyson -- an odd couple, for sure. Has the feral, ferocious lion been domesticated? The movie gives us the lion in repose. His once-fierce growl is muted and softened. When people are asked what famous people they would like to have a meal with, they usually say something like, "Jesus and Colonel Sanders." After seeing this film, I'd like to spend some time with Mike Tyson. The best thing about the movie Tyson is that it rediscovers Tyson's humanity, which he and the media zoo had vanquished. Tyson once again is a member of the human race. You expect a knockout, but in the movie Tyson wins on style points. A 4 on my "Go See" scale.

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