If there is one thing you can’t say about Mike Tyson, it’s that he is boring.
Boxing legend, convicted rapist, ear-biting thug, ticking time bomb “ say what you will about the guy, but few celebrities in popular culture are as darkly fascinating. In the extraordinary documentary “Tyson,” the former heavyweight champ reveals the rage, fear and “ perhaps surprisingly “ introspection that has shaped his many successes and meltdowns.
Weaving together archival footage and interview sessions with the fighter, director James Toback (“Two Girls and a Guy”) fashions a portrait that covers familiar ground, but with a somewhat unfamiliar perspective. The filmmaker, a longtime friend of Tyson’s, allows his subject to reflect on his life with disarming candor. There is no pretense of this being an objective documentary. That doesn’t mean Toback tries to whitewash the controversial figure. Far from it. His film is truthful, but its veracity is committed to the singular experience of mining Tyson’s troubled psyche.
“People can judge me, but they can’t understand my mind,” Tyson tells the camera.
His mind, he admits, can be a murky place. He recounts a childhood of being terrorized and beaten up in a crime-infested section of Brooklyn. Eventually, he turned to robberies and an inevitable shuffling through the juvenile justice system. It was in reform school that Tyson realized his strength and quickness were well-suited for boxing. He wound up under the tutelage of boxing trainer Cus D’Amato, who helped transform the street kid into the most dangerous pugilist of his generation.
D’Amato’s influence on Tyson extended beyond boxing, as well. As Tyson’s legal guardian, he worked to imbue the young man with self-worth and hopefulness. Consequently, D’Amato’s death in 1985 proved a devastating personal blow to Tyson.
Inside the ring, however, the boxer was unstoppable, but his ascent also marked the beginning of what would be a long-running freak show for the tabloids. His ill-fated marriage to actress Robin Givens ended with allegations of abuse. In 1993, he was convicted of sexually assaulting a contestant in a beauty pageant. He served three years in an Indiana prison before reviving his career with the precarious help of promoter Don King.
“Tyson” which opens Friday, does not seek absolution. The boxer still insists he was innocent of the rape charge and refers to his accuser as “that wretched swine of a woman.” He makes no apologies for a life of excess, and the bleakness of his worldview (“People are leeches”) could make a serial killer blush.
But Toback, who has put Tyson in two of his movies “ 1999’s “Black and “White” and 2004’s “When Will I Be Loved” “ does bring viewers to a closer understanding. Employing split screens and echo effects in which Tyson’s words seem to drown themselves out, the movie succinctly conveys the champ’s inner maelstrom of insecurities and self-loathing. In the end, what you remember most are the close-ups of Tyson’s eyes “ hard, fierce, merciless. While “Tyson” the movie is equally hard and fierce, it thankfully reveals a compassion that has eluded the man.