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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Review: James Toback's Tyson

James Toback's Tyson, which screened yesterday and opens Friday, is nothing short of amazing. This blogger has been deeply cynical with regards to Tyson, his style, his weak comeback in the late 80s and his sloppy personal life. And we have been equally critical of Toback, whose self-indulgent fare is often suffused with simplistic takes on his pet subjects: crime, race and the fairer sex. But this documentary -- and documentaries are truly the medium of choice nowadays -- explains so much about the former champion. And it does so in Mike Tyson's own words.

Who would have thought that Mike Tyson could hold a film for two hours. And yet he does. He captivates with his slow explanation of lessons learned the hard way. Tyson, wiser, still tattooed about the face, runs us through his career, from Brownsville thief to heavyweight champion of the world to incarceration to, well, what he is now. He does so with the wisdom of a man beyond the violent ambitions of his youth.

Mike Tyson has seen everything the world has to offer. He has been at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder -- at Spofford youth detention center -- and he has seen the heights of fame, hobnobbing with models in the bathroom at fifth avenue parties. After getting out of prison he had $200 million. In a moving speech on the "leeches," Tyson explains how he lost almost all of that. His final fight, in which he all but gave up and seemed to implore the ref to give him a hand off the canvas, was a literal and figurative low at how far he had fallen. And his diatribe on Desiree Washington, who probably faked her rape claim, and the treacherous Don King are beyond compelling. The cinematography -- interspersed between Tyson ruminating on a leopard-skin couch -- is lovely: we see Tyson on the beach in split-screen with an existential voice over.

There is a leonine quality to Tyson recalling his life. The roar of the yawning ocean and the heartbreaking beach sunset is a masterstroke of cinematography. Yes, Tyson is existential. His low, resigned growl is more King Lear than punchdrunk old fossil. Tyson was not ready for the fame, the money, the women throwing themselves at him. He is at times incredibly sad (on discussing his first father-figure "Cus" D'Amato), and, alternatingly, hilarious (on Don King in particular).

The only fault we can find in this film is that there is not enough on Don King, who was, for all intents and purposes, the second most influential man in Tyson's life. But we imagine that King's lawyers put the screws to James Toback, the film's director. One can only hope that more will be forthcoming on the "Director's Cut" DVD. Also, there is no mention of Kevin Rooney, who briefly took over from "Cus" D'Amato before being tossed aside by King's machivellian machinations. Still, James Toback did a magnificent job. The documentary captures a complicated man and is brimming with love. Toback clearly regards Tyson and the sport of boxing as friends, and does them manly tribute in this significant work.

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