In Tyson, James Toback’s shockingly candid documentary, one of sport’s most fascinating figures makes an unlikely comeback, and a bid for redemption. Toback offers a portrait of a thug as a noble savage. The film shows that Mike Tyson is as iconic a figure as Muhammed Ali. Of course, he lacks Ali’s elegance and nobility. But Tyson is a more profoundly tragic hero—the bigger the hubris, the harder they fall. As one critic noted after last night’s screening, he’s like Ali’s evil twin.
Toback’s “documentary” is a one-man show: Tyson is the only interview. But what prevents it from turning into hagiography is the subject’s talent for devastating self-exposure. He talks about how his groin was burning with gonorrhea as he demolished his opponent to win his first world heavyweight title match—unsure if he got the clap from a prostitute or a “filthy lady.” He castigates his ex-wife, Robin Givens, with withering profanity. Still claiming to be innocent of the rape that landed him in prison for three years, he says, “I may have taken advantage of women before but not that woman.” A defense couched in a confession. Tyson talks frankly about sex, explaining how he likes to dominate strong women, not masculine women, but CEO types. He says he likes to stalk them, like a tiger stalking prey, and “devour” them. The man’s misogeny is jaw-dropping. So are his fists. The interview material is intercut with boxing highlights from his career, and for those of us who aren’t boxing fans, and are familiar only with Ali’s liquid grace, the blinding speed and homicidal fury of Tyson’s punches comes as a revelation.
Under the scrutiny of the camera, Tyson engages in another kind of brutal blood sport, locked in a clinch with his own demons. Despite the high-pitched lisp, he has quicksilver tongue with a razor edge. Even as talker, he’s a fighter. And despite the elliptical cadence of his speech, which swings from chronic insecurity to ferocious arrogance, he seems scarily intelligent for someone who made his name as blunt instrument. One moment he’s breaking down into tears; at another, he’s explaining with pride about how precise you have to be to break a man’s jaw with a fist cushioned by a boxing glove.
Here’s some footage I shot of Tyson taking the stage in Cannes:
Click here for a later video interview with Toback
For more of my videos go to http://www.youtube.com/bdjfilms. All 2008 Cannes footage is shot on a Sony HDR-SR12 camcorder, on loan courtesy of Sony Canada.