Film Reviews


By • May 10th, 2009 •

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Labored Breathing. Scars from stitches mark his face, remnants from days in the ring. We are extremely close. Too close. His eyes penetrate. His breathing dominates our senses. This is Mike Tyson, extremely up close. Again, it is the breathing that dominates. Auscultation.

Thoughts of two boxers flash in mind. Toe to toe. Everything is at stake. This is what it must have been like to step up against one of the greatest boxing champions in the history of the sport during his heyday. Face to face. The sound of his breathing. The stare from his eyes.

No act of dissimulation on the part of Mike Tyson here.

Mike bares all to the point of prostration. His fears, his triumphs, his poignant thoughts, his wrong choice of nouns and verbs.

The camera tells the truth. This is the autobiography of the Boxing Champ as told by Mike Tyson, directed by James Toback. The film starts. Split screens, overlapped audio. It becomes somewhat discordant after awhile. But the technique soon ends…until another round of it later. It is a bold decision to present this in such a way. Filmmaking has become sloppy in recent years and this is a smart choice. Is this technique supposed to be a metaphor for Tyson’s split personality and the voices that he hears in his head? I don’t know. Overall, kudos to Toback.

Behind the rough exterior that is Mike Tyson is a person who needs love and wants acceptance. He tells of his “friends” who scrubbed him clean of his wealth, and the women that led him down a pernicious path. You can’t help but be sympathetic to the bruiser that suffered due to the ignoble acts of others. Tyson doesn’t cry crocodile tears. He is honest with the troubles as a youth and with the uncertainties that his future faces. Tremulous speech battles to spit out the heartfelt loss that he suffered when his trainer, Cus D’Amato, passed away.

Tyson’s words are interwoven with clips of him training in Upstate New York as a teenager. The crude technology is projected with all of its grain and pixilation magnified in the footage shot by a German filmmaker doing a documentary on Tyson’s trainer at the time. However, the filmmaker was directed to turn his attention towards the young future champion.

Growing up in Brooklyn without a father figure, Tyson was picked on by bullies. Delinquent behavior placed him at the Spofford Juvenile Center in The Bronx and then Upstate New York at a place for troubled youths. Upstate is where he put on the boxing gloves for the first time. There he learned responsibility and adhered to a rigorous training schedule. He admits to subsequent return trips to Brooklyn to steal, and was tempted to steal from Cus D’Amato’s “mansion.”

As a child he was accosted and suffered the indignities of abuse from thugs. What drove him to fight for his rights? He raised pigeons. When he pleaded for the return of a pigeon, the assailant ripped it in two and threw it back at him. That was his breaking point and the fists went flying. From that point on, Tyson built up a reputation.

Along with such stories are clips from his bouts on HBO and SHOWTIME.

Footage of Tyson boxing in various stages of his career is carried with his voiceover detailing his fears and what was going on in his head. He critiques his skills. He confesses to respiratory problems. When he fights for the title, he sweats profusely. Very candidly, he explains why this was so. He had an STD for which he was too embarrassed to seek treatment.

His anger seethes towards the precipitated judgment of the system that had served injustice and sent him behind bars for three years. His graphic depiction of the horror and foul stench suffered under his penal servitude is gripping. If someone of his frame and strength had to endure such horrors, does the average man have a chance behind those walls? The scars of the wrongfully accused do not heal. This isn’t the forum to discuss the charges, and what proved to be a wrongful conviction. But Tyson credits the rape charges and confinement as the turning point in his life. More so than becoming heavyweight champion, because imprisonment is what snapped him, that’s what triggered the multiple voices and an understanding of insanity. His tattoos that he inked represent the anger that still stews over the American Justice System that failed him. One tat is that of Mao smiling on his arm. We learn that in prison, Tyson’s friends fell to the wayside. He has sought Islam as his stronghold. And he has cleaned house of those like Don King.

Toback uses footage from a press conference to show Tyson’s rage. “I wanted to use one moment of true flip out rage in one press conference and have that serve as the torch bearer for that part of his personality. And I use what I consider the most extreme one.” says Toback. Tyson flips out on guy who screamed out, “You belong in a straight jacket.” Tyson retorts with a tirade of how that man’s mother belongs in a straight jacket and how Tyson will defile and rape him while spouting a cavalcade of anti-white slurs and homosexual assaults. Toback labels this as “prison trash talk.”

We see the rise and fall, and the encore rise and fall, of Tyson. In his last boxing match he took the fall. Tyson discussed that this was his final fight. He donned the gloves solely for the money and his lackluster performance was steered by a heart that wasn’t in the sport anymore, and a body that had had enough. By taking on such a match with an inferior opponent and for all the wrong reasons, he was doing the sport that he loves a disservice.

Tyson left the ring for the locker room defeated on many levels.

One can only hope that Tyson does not follow in the shoes of Jake LaMotta, the boxer portrayed in Martin Scorsese’s RAGING BULL. In real life, LaMotta was far from being a nice guy, this of his own admission. From those that know him, I have been told that LaMotta was of worse character than he professes. Nor is he respected by the many that I have come across in the boxing community. Post boxing, LaMotta owned a club and was there to entertain his customers. It was a sorry display. Today, he can be seen donning his cowboy hat at an occasional autograph signing. One might pity him. In this film, Tyson is seen at home with his children. Like any good parent, he wants his children to be safe and attend a good school. He has money coming forth from a video game. Hopefully, the vultures will stay at bay, his cash will be safe, and there will be a glowing sunset long into his old age. Is James Toback truly a friend to Tyson? For Mike’s sake I hope so.

One thing that should be brought to the attention of the filmmaker, and Tyson, is his claim that he lost whatever he had in him when Cus died. What did he exactly lose? A friend? A mentor? Sure. The fight inside? No way. He went on to become champion and one of the most recognizable faces in the world.

Opponents of this film will want to hear from someone else. This film is a 90-minute Tyson monologue. It is his autobiography. According to Toback, it was meant to be that way. He didn’t want a hodgepodge of diluted agenda driven drivel.

Of the qualms discussed about the film after its screening, some suggested that Toback lives vicariously through Tyson, and that his comment of being an extreme person (both Tyson and Toback proclaim this behavior) is made by an average person who only says these things to feel better about himself. Another gripe is that Tyson’s name appears in the credits as a producer. This justly brings about the argument about the honesty of the film. As stated, Tyson puts himself out there for all to see. James Toback claims that Tyson had nothing to do with the content or editing of the film. I can go along with that. After being rooked in the past by Don King and other friendly smiles, I assume Tyson wanted something in writing to reap the financial benefits.

Both men and women agreed that Tyson was innocent of the rape charges. And both also agreed that Tyson should have socked it to Givens when she berated him in front of Barbara Walters.

Boxing fans having watched this yearn for his return to the ring, something most likely never to occur. But I could see him coming down the aisle to the blaring sounds of Metallica’s St. Anger. The song is ever so fitting.

TYSON is not your typical sports documentary. It is shot in an in-your-face style.

He is not a caged animal. His heart is evident. So are his neuroses.

Every statement could be questioned for further investigation by fans and the curious.

But this is not an investigative report. Boxing fans will greatly enjoy watching this. Those not fans of the ring may opt to watch this at home but still be intrigued by Tyson.

After having seen the film I thought about it at length. It’s not 90 minutes projected onto a screen and soon forgotten. But that labored breathing still lingers.

Below is a Q&A with the writer and director of Tyson, James Toback.

He has penned the following screenplays:


From where does this relationship with Mike Tyson stem?

“It started with this conversation we had when he was 19 on the set of THE PICKUP ARTIST. We walked together through Central Park, with a long ambling conversation about sex, love, madness, crime, boxing, sports and death, which are all the things the movie deals with. We kept up over the years in this very intense way. There was never a point where I felt that we wouldn’t have a fruitful friendship, not just one that we just enjoyed, but something would come of it. And when I used him in BLACK AND WHITE, I thought maybe this is the ultimate manifestation, but something about the way he did the scene in the gym made me feel that we could go beyond that, and TYSON became an extension of that scene, which was basically a self-reflective meditative scene unlike the famous one with Downey and Brooke Shields which is more incendiary.”

While working with Mike Tyson on BLACK AND WHITE, Toback learned some insightful things about him. Partly, because the scenes were not all scripted.

“Half of the movie was done as written and half was done in a way that I would say was, not pure improvisation, but invention. Because I would give actors an intention, then just let them invent the dialogue. All of Mike’s dialogue was invention. There is a certain kind of actor or non-actor, to me, who is crazy to write dialogue for. Because if you let them go, they are going to give you better dialogue than you can write. It was the scene in the gym in BLACK AND WHITE where he is really completely divided on the subject of murder. Power of Wu-Tang Clan asks him whether he should kill his boyhood friend who is about to rat on him. And first he said, ‘Yes, if someone is out to destroy you, you have to get him before he gets you. But are you ready to go to the penitentiary, and I don’t think you are.’ He says, in effect, don’t do it and then talks about being humiliated in prison himself.”

Where did the idea of TYSON come from?

“The idea was psychoanalytic. It was to be a kind of voice off camera, a sort of provocative voice, certainly not to ask questions, but just to set off a monologue and let the unconscious come out. Because the whole idea was to look at it like a meditation, a self-analysis, let the unconscious come out and join the conscious mind in speaking. I planted myself off camera and made sure that he didn’t see me at all, just throw out a phrase or two and then let him go as far as he could go with it.

As the camera is alarmingly close to the face of the boxing great, we are faced with images of the antithesis of the proverbial archetype champion. A sniffling, teary eyed, and stuttering Tyson recollects his relationship with Cus D’Amato.

“That vulnerability was the inevitable result of letting him go that way. He is a sad guy. He has a deeply pained, sad nature and you can feel this aura of sadness around him. Not that I was trying to get him to break down. I thought if there was ever going to be an honest portrait of him, that’s going to have to come through. And that’s highly unexpected, that isn’t the way one thinks of Mike Tyson. What makes him an interesting person are these endless complexities.”

Did you know where you were headed with the dialogue? Were you prepared for this?

“I didn’t know half of what was in the movie. I had no idea. I knew certain facts. He had never talked about fear eating away at him or about being bullied the way he was.

I didn’t know he had breathing problems, which is the first thing I heard when I put on my earphones. On the first morning was (labored breathing sounds) and right away, I bet that’s the way the movie is going to end. It just seemed a key and I wasn’t surprised when that was central to his whole idea of fighting, because he had to go for knockouts early because he was always afraid that he was going to run out of breath”

How much footage did you shoot and how did you deal with clearances?

“We shot 30 hours original footage. I ignored all financial issues and just did what I wanted to do and figured out how much I was going to owe. I financed most of the movie. I put up two million and got it finished without rights and without some postproduction. Then I inventoried how much it was going to cost to get all the rights and realized I was going to be $900,000.00 short. So I took $500,000. from one guy…then the last money came from Carmello Anthony, who is a star with the Denver Nuggets. We needed that money to avoid all kinds of problems. Carmello saw the movie and Tyson’s manager said that if you have some money to invest we will make you a partner. He said sure and that’s what enabled us to get through. I didn’t want to worry about money in terms of making decisions. So I just put in everything I wanted, but it was significant. In particular, the fight footage belonged to both ESPN and HBO, and that was a pretty substantial figure.”

What about the magazine covers and the archival Tyson footage?

“Most of the other stuff you have to pay something, but it was all basically manageable.

There was one funny thing. The German director that I mentioned, that shot the documentary footage, everyone that wants to do anything with Tyson, you are going to want to get that footage and he could pretty much charge anything that he wants. He gave me a really good deal. As it turned out, a girlfriend of mine in High School was an ex-wife that he had a daughter with, so he gave me a discount.”

What was Tyson’s reaction to the film?

“The first time he saw the movie he was shocked. Didn’t say a word for five minutes and then he said, ‘it’s like a Greek Tragedy, the only problem is that I am the subject.’

It wasn’t really until the third time that he saw it through that he really stopped looking at it in disbelief as to who he saw up there. At Sundance, he said, ‘People would always say that I was crazy or they were afraid of me, but watching it the third time tonight, I was scared of the guy up there.”

What do you say about the moments in the film when he speaks of rage and even of moments of blacking out?

“I think that he has, which is clear early in the movie, when he talks about ‘I cant even say it,’ then he says, ‘if anyone ever fucked with me again, I would fuckin’ kill them.’

I think he has a fear of not just everything around him, and he talks about fear as the almost operational reality in his life, but he has a fear of his own rage and his homicidal capacity. He talks about himself as an extremist. What does that mean? You can only live in one end or the other. So he is going back and forth between containment, discipline, and even passivity. Then total unleashed uncertainty about what might happen.”

The look into his relationships deals with the public lashing that he had received by his ex-wife Robin Givens and his self-confessed promiscuity as well as the incident, which landed him in prison.

“He is very definitely vulnerable to love in general, and specific women in particular. He speaks about his ex-wife Monica in a very interesting way, he says, ‘we made a terrible married couple but we make great friends.’ And I think that’s the one case where he has been able to make sense of the idea of accommodating a friendship and respect in a tempestuous sexual emotional relationship

How do you see his life?

“It is like a double Greek Tragedy because it happened twice in two cycles. But, it has all the classic elements of starting with nothing, over extending himself, extending himself to maximum capacity, and then through hubris, bringing about his own destruction.

And bringing about his own destruction in a way that was entirely avoidable form a rational point of view, but not really avoidable. In fact, inevitable. If you look at the nature of his personality, you actually see the seeds of it both the first time and second time.”

Is there anything that you see in the both of you that you share?

“What draws me to him and what has drawn me to him over the years is precisely the similarities despite the surface differences. The fact that we had these very intense long conversations, starting when he was 19, but going through the years and going through all these subjects obsessing both of us. It’s almost like looking at a version of myself in a totally different format. I think that he looks at me the same way and he always said over the years, ‘I can’t really talk to anyone else the way I talk to you because nobody understands me the way you understand me.’ I might not be quite so extreme in saying the same thing to him, but I certainly know that I can talk to him in a way that I can talk to very few other people. And that literally anything that I say to him isn’t outside his capacity of understanding. Whereas, a number of close friends of mine, I know I can’t say certain things to them. I say them, but I know either that they’re thinking “Jesus Jim is really crazy’ or they are thinking ‘what is he talking about?’ There is almost nothing that I said to Mike over the years that’s outside his realm of digestion.”

Why have you chosen to include Mike Tyson in this film and nobody else?

“I decided to make this movie a self-portrait. I wanted it to be a movie about Mike in his own words. Once you open up the forum to anyone else, it’s diluted. It’s as if you have a self-portrait of Gauguin, but before you are finished, you ask someone when he knew him as a stockbroker to just do his ear. Then you ask Van Gogh to paint his nose. After awhile you just have a hodgepodge. I wanted to just get Tyson in his own words, particularly because everybody who talks about Tyson and knew him has a definite agenda. In many cases, it’s people who are extremely unhappy that they weren’t brought along in his life when he became successful. There are a whole group of people that are part of Cus’ world that he did not carry on with him who had wanted to be carried on. From the beginning, I just viewed it as a movie that would be a self-portrait of Tyson filtered through my own style but basically in his own words.”

Tyson is seen at home with his children dressed in white at the end of the film.

“A metaphor I use is that he is like a guy that is in the middle of an earthquake. Now he is surrounded by rubble and he is sort of surveying the destruction of what used to be there and kind of wondering what to do next and what’s possible. I think the movie doesn’t really lead you to any conclusion. It just says the past is history and the future is a mystery. I think it’s true of anybody, but true of Tyson to a heightened degree.”

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5 Responses »

  1. Sounds like an interesting documentary. I felt for Tyson when he said upon viewing the film for the third time, “I was afraid of that guy up there.”

    I still remember watching the Barbara Walters interview with his then-wife Robin Givens, many years ago. I remember the way Robin carefully and cautiously admitted that on occasion, Tyson hit her. I remember the way his face tightened up; you could see he was trying hard to maintain his composure. I remember being fearful for Robin and thinking, “Man she should definitely NOT go home with him tonight…”

    A great review.

  2. Interesting to see people talking about Tyson even after being retired for almost 5 years and being out of the public eye for that long. This should still be an intersting docupic to see wounder if IFC will get behinds this one after all the publissity they got for getting behinds main stream name dogs like the metalica’s some kinds of mister and Anvil doc.

  3. It’s very interesting that the public is still so interested in him after such a fall from grace and such a long time. The review really makes me want to see the film.

  4. Only Toback could have made such a film. If you really examine his work like FINGERS and especially LOVE AND MONEY the Toback of those days was more than a kindred spirirt to TYSON. This review is so insightful regarding the actual viewing experince that I want to see it as well.

    Toback has always been a maverick and it is not surprising that he chose this project to make himself a player again.

  5. I went to the movies in Union square to see this film. I now wonder, seeing how frail Mike Tyson really is, if the recent death of his daughter will truly be his downfall. All the best to him.

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