You won’t know what hit you after watching Tyson. This power punch to the gut is one of the best movies of any kind this year. But Tyson is going out as a documentary, a label that doesn’t cut it for describing the overflow of ferocity and feeling on display. Being a former heavyweight boxing champion and the so-called “baddest man on the planet,” Tyson has been duking it out all of his 42-year-old life with labels:
A wild Brooklyn kid with 38 arrests by age 13.
A raging bull in the ring who’d bite your ear off (just ask Evander Holyfield).
A felon imprisoned for three years for raping beauty contestant Desiree Washington.
A sex and drug addict who pissed away $300 million.
Whew! Tyson, directed by the champ’s friend of two decades James Toback, uses home movies and film clips of fights and TV interviews to throw jabs. Tyson doesn’t duck them, except for the rape, which he angrily denies. By the end of the film, Iron Mike emerges from his media cage — damaged, for sure, but whole in a way we’ve never seen him before.
A word about the movie’s structure. Despite his use of split screens and tricky editing, Toback is basically talking to one man, and taking his word for it. Since Tyson serves as one of the film’s producers, you may be smelling a setup. Just wait till you see the movie.
Tyson opens up like a man injected with truth serum. And hardly to his benefit. It’s tough on the inspiration factor to listen to Tyson say he was suffering from an STD when he defeated Trevor Berbick in 1986 to become the youngest heavyweight champ ever, at the age of 20. It’s appalling to hear about his need to dominate in the ring and in the bedroom. It’s painful to watch him squirming in a 1988 TV interview with Barbara Walters while his then-wife, Robin Givens, labels him an abusive “manic-depressive.” And it’s just plain scary to hear his homophobic rant at a 2002 press conference before his world-title fight with Lennox Lewis: “I’ll fuck you till you love me, faggot.”
Toback’s film shows Tyson as a mass of contradictions. As a kid mocked for his high voice and lisp, Tyson admits he was afraid to fight back. When he learned, he couldn’t stop: “I knew no one was ever going to fuck with me again.” The champ’s eyes well up just talking about Cus D’Amato, the trainer who treated this juvie like a member of the family. D’Amato, who died before his protégé won his first title, taught Tyson to smell fear in his opponent and go in for the kill. D’Amato’s death sent Tyson into a world of excess. But it was his three-year prison stretch that brought him close to madness.
It’s madness that links Tyson and Toback. They’re both extremists. Tyson, a convert to Islam who knows his life is still a mystery, takes his hard line in the ring. Toback, having barely survived an LSD binge, shows his in rule-busting films like Fingers and Black and White, in which Toback directed Robert Downey Jr. to come on to Tyson, as himself, and goad the champ into a rage. It worked. Tyson and Toback are both goading each other in this movie. Let them call it a documentary. I’d call it a world-class exhibition of punch-drunk love.