Review: Tyson

James Toback’s new film banks on the intrinsic fascination inspired by his central figure.

Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

James Toback’s new film is aptly named: the thing’s all Mike Tyson. Banking on the intrinsic fascination inspired by his central figure, the filmmaker turns the mic over to the former heavyweight champion and builds his film entirely around the man’s personal testimony, give or take some well integrated bits of stock footage. Shooting for an intimate portrait of his subject rather than any sort of measured objectivity, Toback excises any counterbalancing voices from the project—his own included—and leaves the final word in every case with Tyson, even as the boxer exhibits a marked tendency toward self-contradiction.

Although this singularity of viewpoint has already inspired some measure of controversy (Amy Taubin’s accusations of Tyson making “libelous remarks” when he claims on camera that he was innocent of his rape charge), there seems to me nothing inherently wrong with such an approach. Toback simply presents the material and then leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether he wants to take everything his subject says at face value. And yet, despite the dynamic role that Tyson played in the popular consciousness in the late 1980s and early 1990s, both in and out of the ring, he seems here to be too insufficiently remarkable a figure to single-handedly carry a feature film, a man more fascinating when seen in the public light than as glimpsed in his private, confessional moments.

Which is not to say that Tyson doesn’t register as a personality of some interest. Seated on a leather couch in his home, decked out in a striped silk shirt, the boxer reflects back frankly on his life and career, proceeding chronologically from early rise, jail sentence, comeback, and eventual loss of enthusiasm for his profession. What emerges is a man of some self-understanding, but little self-control, a man whose drive to succeed was tempered by great personal indulgence, a figure given to paranoia and terrifying outbursts of anger who eventually comes to isolate himself from everyone around him. But what seems vaguely enthralling at first eventually proves exhausting. As Tyson’s tortured syntax and questionable word choice veer ever closer to incoherence (a favorite misuse: skullduggery) and his outbursts grow more and more tiresome, if occasionally amusing (on Don King: “He would kill his mother for a dollar”), he ultimately registers less as a fascinating personality laid bare than a tiresome boor whose reserves of self-reflection have long ago been spent.

Which is perhaps why Toback resorts to a questionable aesthetic trickery to put forth Tyson’s discourse. Seemingly aiming for a kaleidoscopic portrait of his subject, Toback filters the boxer’s monologue through split screens, overlapping sound, and multiple angles, an approach that seems justified exactly once (when Tyson details how he spent much of his prison time talking to himself and the director multi-tracks the boxer’s voice) and which comes off as, at best, an organizational miscalculation and, at worst, a desperate attempt to cover up the insufficiency of his source material. If Iron Mike were truly as fascinatingly contradictory a figure as the filmmaker would like us to believe, then he obviously wouldn’t need to rely on this sort of amateurish editing room tomfoolery to tell us so. It would be nice to be able to say that Tyson deserves better than Toback gives him, but given the evidence of the current project, the possibilities for building a film around the consciousness of this particular subject seem rather limited indeed.

 Cast: Mike Tyson  Director: James Toback  Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics  Running Time: 88 min  Rating: R  Year: 2008  Buy: Video

Andrew Schenker

Andrew Schenker is an essayist and critic living in upstate New York. His writing has appeared in The Baffler, The Village Voice, Artforum, Bookforum, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and others.

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