Saturday, February 2, 2013

Off the Shelf: James Toback's Tyson (2008)

Boxer Mike Tyson didn’t have the rhythmic swing of Muhammad Ali, or the dazzling force of Joe Frazier – he was instead a powerfully built blunt instrument. But because of that imposing physique, it was assumed by some that Tyson was illiterate, that all he could do was fight. In his documentary film, Tyson, director James Toback (Fingers, Black and White) delivers a surprising and fascinating account of this troubled fighter’s life by allowing Mike Tyson to speak for himself. And it turns out, he is anything but illiterate. For the full length of the movie, Toback simply places Tyson in front of the camera and (with the occasional inclusion of archival footage), we hear the story from this troubled boxer first-hand  Toback's choice of subject is hardly surprising; he has always been something of an enigmatic and unpredictable talent himself. Most of his movies, good (Two Girls and a Guy) and bad (Harvard Man), approach movie-making as if they were tests of character, where his streaks of reckless improvisation could add this element of danger to the dramatic tension in the story. With Tyson, he sublimates his usual improvisational style and lets Mike Tyson seize the moment to nakedly reveal himself.

It’s hard to believe now but early in Tyson’s career many eagerly scrambled to associate themselves with this solidly built young man with the gapped-tooth lisp. He was unbeaten 15 times in his first year as a pro fighter due to a left hook that could hit opponents with the speed of a bullet and the force of a gun shot. (He rightly earned the name Kid Dynamite.) In 1986, Tyson became the youngest world heavyweight champion in pro boxing by dropping World Boxing titleholder, Trevor Berbick, in the second round. His original mentor and manager Cus D’Amato was hugely responsible for taking this brutal street kid and then turning him into a successful and intimidating fighter. But after D’Amato’s sudden and tragic death, Tyson fell into the hands of Bill Cayton and promoter Don King, who played carny barker rather than mentor to the boxer. So it didn't take long for Tyson’s problems to fully erupt. His tumultuous marriage to actress Robin Givens quickly ended. He then fired his skillful trainer Kevin Rooney which ultimately lead to the deterioration of his abilities. And, in 1992, there was the rape conviction that landed him in prison.

director James Toback 
In Tyson, he talks about all of this with a candour that's initially surprising, even at times thoughtful. He occasionally shows those familiar streaks of brutality, which come in those self-mocking expressions that we see are masking his rage. But unlike Barbara Kopple’s wonderfully insightful documentary, Fallen Champ (1993), Toback's Tyson doesn’t put the fighter and his life into the larger context of the boxing world with its history of corruption. Tyson is instead an intimate portrait that seeks to unravel the many sides of Mike Tyson’s personality. What is sometimes most riveting is how Toback, who once cast Tyson in a small role in Black and White (where Robert Downey Jr. plays a gay man who unwisely hits on the fighter), identifies with the contradictory elements in his subject – as he had years earlier in his friendship with the football star Jim Brown. But, this time, Toback thankfully resists imposing his own philosophical musings on the picture.Tyson is a clear and clean confession by a man who doesn’t make excuses, or lay claim to our sympathies. The movie asks you to take the man – with all his gifts and flaws – face on. You could say that Tyson is an unsettling revelation.

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Courrier is currently conducting a five-part lecture series called Woody Allen: Past and Present (with film clips) at the JCC Miles Nadal Centre in Toronto each Monday until February 11 from 7-9pm.

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