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A raging bull now tamed: Mike Tyson in James Toback's documentary "Tyson", which expanded its release today.  (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)

The Tyson Chronicles: Hunting Down Fear, And Using It As Ammunition Against Self-Destruction
 By Omar P.L. Moore/  
 Friday, May 8, 2009
Mike Tyson has been around the edges of James Toback films past, with cameos in "Black And White" and "When Will I Be Loved", and in "Tyson" his good friend Mr. Toback cedes the stage entirely, letting a controversial public figure get everything off his chest that had been piled onto it for over two decades.  It feels as if Mr. Tyson has wanted to talk for a long time, years in fact -- and in a long, continuous, undiluted and unfiltered monologue he does, rarely pausing.  A once (and still somewhat) fearsome image is softened by Mr. Toback, who films the former undisputed world heavyweight champion of boxing in a mostly serene late morning or afternoon light as he reflects on the errors of his ways, the inspiration of his troubled young life (Cus D'Amato, Mr. Tyson's guardian and father figure) and his struggles and triumphs with the opposite sex.  Mr. Tyson explains himself but he and his documentary chronicler never justify actions or look for sympathy.
 Footage of Mr. Tyson's explosive power in the ring -- he looks like a bull who has turned angrily on his matador after seeing red -- is more powerful than when first seen during his boxing heyday.  Mr. Toback looks not to smooth the edges, but complete the picture of a man who has not only been misunderstood but also tragically besotted with predicaments of his own doing as well as by others.  The visual style of "Tyson" is like a unscrambled Rubick's Cube being scrambled into place -- we see multiple angles and fragments of Mr. Tyson's face as we and the former boxer himself attempt to understand what makes Mr. Tyson tick.  Cross-audio edits, narration and contemplation in the first-person by Mr. Tyson dominate the documentary, which behaves more like a video autobiography or cinematic memoir.

"Tyson" also offers a visceral look at the role fear played in Mr. Tyson's formative years as a child in Brownsville, Brooklyn, where he was constantly bullied and robbed -- and how Mr. Tyson internalized fear and fought back, using fear and intimidation to defeat his challengers in the boxing ring.  Of one fighter in a pre-fight staredown he said: "I knew I could beat my opponent because for that split second he looked away from me," he says in a moment of great calculation and insight.  It is particularly revealing because the smell of fear is a scent that Mr. Tyson thrived on in the ring, declaring that he already defeated his opponents before they even stepped in to it. 

Yet the complexity of Mr. Tyson is revealed on the other side of fear's coin: fear of being overpowered by both men and women, whether in prison or in the ring by the former, or in the arena of love by the latter.  "I won't let them love me too much.  I have too much love to give and I like giving," he says in voiceover while pictured walking along a beach -- one of the only visuals which seems a tad cliched, like a forced watershed moment of reflection that doesn't seem to fit within the power and economy of Mr. Toback's film, as if an extraction from another realm.  In one moment the quotes in this and the prior paragraph are merged in an electrifying way during an torrent of rage in an expletive-filled rant at a pre-fight promotional appearance.  It is perhaps the documentary's most interesting moment: channeling fear and turning it on its head while managing to be somewhat entrapped by it.

Despite one or two minor complaints, "Tyson" isn't so much a profound work as it is a captivating look at a legendary sports figure who realizes that his time of trouble and strife has in retrospect made him a better person, albeit via such a painful and rigorous process.  It's a documentary worthy of your time and it intrigues, fascinates and illuminates, far beyond the media glare.  The former world heavyweight champion answers his critics and curses the women who he says brought him so much grief despite his own peccadilloes and proclivities which he certainly confesses to.  "Tyson" showcases a man smarter and more cogent than the world realizes.  Fame, fortune, failure and fatherhood teach him -- and us -- a whole lot about life itself.

"Tyson" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for language including sexual references.  There are many violent knockouts in the boxing footage and a quick shot of the infamous bitten ear of Evander Holyfield.  There are also anti-homosexual epithets and explicit sexual dialogue.  The film's running time is one hour and 29 minutes.


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