As James Toback's Tyson opens, what hits you first is the technique. The idea behind the project is pretty simple -- essentially, this is an extended interview with infamous boxer Mike Tyson as he reminiscences about his roots, and on the highs and lows of his career and private life. But in crafting what is otherwise a straightforward personal testimony by the former (and disgraced) heavyweight, Toback opts for a dynamic, eye-filling presentation: He employs split-screens that balance the interview with archival photos and video footage that together form a mosaic of one man's recollections. Sometimes the audio behind those recollections is layered together, one track echoing away, then replaced by another that offers a revised version in its place.
The overall effect is the cinematic equivalent of the vagaries of memory, less a conventional biography and more a scrapbook of sorts unfolding on the screen. The boxer often chokes back tears, acknowledging his mentors, or spews vitriol as he confronts unresolved resentments and bitterness towards those he feels wronged him. Tyson's most engrossing moments occur when Toback juxtaposes the boxer's own blow-by-blow of a fight in sync with the fight's actual footage -- it's a brilliant example of the subjective and the objective smashed together. Article continues below
Tyson begins at the beginning, recalling what it was like growing up in drug- and crime-infested Brooklyn projects in the late '70s. By his early teens, he was in a juvenile facility in upstate New York after years involved in petty crime and drug peddling. The turning point in his life occurred when he came under the tutelage of Cus D'Amato, the legendary boxing trainer, who saw the kid's potential in the ring. D'Amato molded Tyson into the fierce, audaciously talented boxer we remember. More than that, though, D'Amato also proved to be the sorely needed father figure Tyson lacked.
D'Amato's death in 1985, just as Tyson's boxing trajectory was taking off, set up the central and tragic irony in his life story -- that Tyson went on to enjoy the fruits of D'Amato's mentoring, but, without the moral counterbalance that his trainer provided, he rapidly fell victim to his own worst tendencies.
We're all familiar with Tyson, the media sensation, but Tyson takes aim at the shadow side of fame: the steady attrition of discipline, the reckless dissipation, the disastrous marriage to Robin Givens, his rape conviction and prison term, the subsequent slide of his record, the emergence of his status as a pop culture joke and cautionary tale, ahead of his retirement from boxing in 2005, and, now, a chastened figure eager for redemption.
For its stylistic and psychological ambitions, Tyson is an easy enough film to appreciate, but not an easy film to embrace. Toback intends to humanize his subject, to distill the "real" Tyson from the media distortions, but something about this exercise feels disingenuous and, worse yet, rife with sports-movie clichés. Were it not for Toback's inventive filmmaking, Tyson's interview -- his insistence on explaining himself, to express remorse for his past and readiness to live cleanly from here on out -- smacks of self-promotion. Parts of Tyson feel, almost amusingly, like a trumped-up infomercial for the man, meant to brighten his public image.
Connect the dots that this documentary lays out, and you've got the beat-by-beat of every run-of-the-mill sports movie ever made in which the superstar athlete, undone by vanity and hubris, finds himself broken, alone, and humbled. True, you can't change the "script" of Tyson's life, no matter how predictable it is, but where "real" life differs from "reel" life is in the depth, wisdom, and humility that a worthy subject can bring to the table; Tyson may be the case of a subject not quite ready for primetime, a man still smarting from his past wounds, too narcissistic, frankly, to be very interesting.