Have you ever wondered if, on occasion, film critics don't actually write their review based upon the headline?
Think about it.
"Tyson" is a knockout!
"A Movie That's a Contender."
Cute headlines, indeed. Unfortunately, they're also inaccurate.
"Tyson," essentially a one-man documentary directed by longtime Tyson friend James Toback, isn't a bad documentary. In fact, it's quite involving and there's hardly any denying that Tyson can be a captivating and involving character.
The problem with "Tyson" is really quite simple. With the exception of a surprisingly moving segment on Tyson's relationship with his first, and obviously greatest, trainer Cus D'Amato, there's simply not much new in "Tyson" worth mentioning.
Here's what I mean-
Tyson grew up on the mean streets of Brooklyn.
Check. Already knew that.
Tyson ascended the ranks of boxing quickly.
Yep. I'm not even a boxing fan and I knew that.
Tyson had a godawful marriage to Robin Givens.
I think we all know that one.
Tyson eventually got beaten by Buster Douglas.
No news there.
Oh, Tyson was convicted of raping beauty queen Desiree Washington.
Well, I do live in Indiana. So, there's no way I wouldn't know that one.
Tyson got out of prison and was, let's be honest, never the same boxer again.
See. Nothing new.
So, why recommend "Tyson" at all?
Because, despite the overwhelming familiarity of much of the material and James Toback's undeniably sympathetic direction, "Tyson" is a surprisingly involving, moving and, yes, even honest documentary in which Tyson's obvious trust of Toback leads to Tyson ever so modestly removing the mask that he has worn for years.
The simple truth is that Tyson has spent much of his life ruled by fear, at least to hear him explain it.
Tyson grew up afraid of being hurt, humiliated. Tyson became a young man afraid of being humiliated, failure, losing, powerlessness and much more.
This fear helped Tyson ascend the ranks of boxing and, in many ways, equally led to his downfall at the hands of a system he didn't trust, handlers he didn't trust, women he didn't trust and ultimately struggling to survive in a world that he couldn't trust.
"Tyson," the film, vacillates between this surprisingly vulnerable Tyson and an image of Tyson that very nearly fits the image that most of us have of the man.
Admit it. You DO have an image of Tyson.
I've always considered myself remarkably non-judgmental. However, it's hard to think about Mike Tyson without thinking about boxing or violence, rape or antisocial behavior.
Despite Toback's best efforts to portray Tyson in a positive light, and trust me the effort is obvious, "Tyson" is perhaps most remarkable for Tyson's own ability to contradict himself within scenes.
Toback initiates the film's review of the Desiree Washington incident by "innocently" portraying Washington as a flirtatious, giggly young woman who was quite taken by Tyson. Fast forward to the arrest, rape trial and prison time and it becomes readily apparent that it is this period in his life that haunts Tyson most. Tyson continues to say to this day that he did not rape Washington and, yet, only a couple sentences after this statement he acknowledges having previously treated women poorly.
Rather than igniting sympathy for Tyson and doubt about the guilty verdict, this prolonged segment served more to affirm that Tyson may be completely incapable of discerning right from wrong to this day. This interpretation receives further validation later in the film when Tyson begins a rather blunt description of his sexual tastes, largely involving domination and overpowering.
Yet, I can't deny that there's a certain vulnerability and sadness even in these scenes. By film's end, it becomes clear that Tyson has lived virtually his entire life as a wounded child who has vowed he will never be hurt again and has taken action to ensure this to be true in his daily life, in his relationships and in the ring.
It's disheartening to have seen "Tyson" a mere few days after the boxer's beloved young daughter, Exodus, died in a tragic home accident. For all his anger and aggression, hurt and hostility, Tyson is most a revelation onscreen when he's captured with his children. It is sad to ponder a man whose life has so often been synonymous with hurting has had to experience such a tragic loss.
Had director James Toback chosen to take a more objective, less sympathetic approach to "Tyson" the film would have likely been one of this year's best documentaries. Instead, "Tyson" is merely an entertaining yet wholly predictable look at one of contemporary boxing's most enigmatic and electrifying figures.
Tech credits for "Tyson" are generally solid, though Toback's camera work occasionally becomes a bit distracting with unnecessary split-screen shots that appear without purpose other than to break up the monotony of focusing on one person for the film's 90-minute runtime.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic