The verdict on Mike Tyson seems to be in and the man’s legacy is a rise and fall and not a particularly tragic fall at that. The world sees him as a thug, a convicted rapist, a dirty fighter, and all of it undercut with a ridiculous speech impediment. No one takes Mike Tyson seriously and even if we did, we would force ourselves to wonder why we even cared.
James Toback’s documentary about his friend is largely presented in Tyson’s own words and those words, while not a redemption of any kind, at least transform the disgraced fighter into more than a joke. Furthermore, the film abstains from trying to white-wash Tyson’s character with Tyson continually apologetic and taking most of the blame for his downfall almost to the point where it feels not rehearsed or insincere, but strange. Tyson’s constant apologies and reflections reminded me of Steve Buscemi’s character in “Con Air” where the character was psychotic but he had been psychoanalyzed to the point where all he could do was echo all the textbook psychoanalysis when looking at the world. It’s clear that Tyson has had heavy therapy but again, there’s really no redemption to be found here beyond him loving his family and trying to pay the bills.
The fundamental problem of “Tyson” is that it never provides a reason for its existence beyond an attempt to humanize Mike Tyson (begging the question, why do we need to humanize Mike Tyson?). By letting Tyson serve as his own biographer, we’re denied any insight from those around him and while autobiography is fascinating, as documentary, it feels like we’re only getting one side of the story and at best, Toback is trying to make the point that everyone around Tyson sees him either tragically or comically but no fresh ideas can be gleamed from their insights.
Unfortunately, Tyson himself doesn’t really have the tools to reflect on his downfall beyond his own anger, loneliness, and self-indulgence. Tyson can’t explain a clip of him yelling at a reporter “I’ll fuck you till you love me faggot.” It’s a powerful and fascinating line but one that Tyson boils down to rage and depression.
“Tyson” is at its best when it’s sneaky. Toback is fully aware of the public perception of Tyson which is why old news clips of the fighter are the only other voice in the film other than Tyson’s. The film attempts to explore how this big man with a silly voice has the legacy of a villain and when we see his anger show through, it’s comical but Toback knows those laughs come at a tragic price because Tyson will never establish himself as more than a punchline. At best, Toback shows us the man behind the public perception. He’s not a very interesting man but he’s perhaps more worthy of our pity than our derision.
Rating —– B minus