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Ring master

Toback's Tyson tames two egos
By PETER KEOUGH  |  April 28, 2009
3.0 3.0 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for Tyson

Tyson | Written and Directed by James Toback | with Mike Tyson | Sony Classics | 88 minutes

Interview: James Toback. By Peter Keough.

Tyson brings together a pair of huge egos known for their erratic achievements and unsavory reputations and humbles them. This lesson in humility wins both men a bit of redemption and makes for an oppressively fascinating look into individual — and cultural — pathology.

By far the more notorious of the two, Mike Tyson storms onto the screen in archival footage of his first championship bout, which ended in the second round with a savage knockout of Trevor Berbick. The sequence serves as a reminder of what a terrifying figure in the ring he was, exhilarating and lethal, like a superhero with the speed and power of a special effect. Most people, though, will remember Tyson not as a superb boxer but as a wife beater, a rapist, and an ear biter — a litany of bad behavior for which the media will be forever grateful. It's all chronicled here in his jaundiced, meandering, and often poetically articulate monologues.

Some have criticized the film for not including the points of view of those whom Tyson has wronged and who, he claims, have wronged him, such as his ex-wife, Robin Givens (who does give her side of the story during a Barbara Walters TV interview while sitting next to a tight-lipped Tyson), and Desiree Washington, the woman whose accusation of rape resulted in his conviction and three years in an Indiana penitentiary. But to do so would have disrupted the suffocating solipsism of the portrait, and, anyway, Tyson manages to do a good job of incriminating himself. About Washington, "that wretched swine of a woman," he says, "I may have taken advantage of women before. But not that woman."

Not a nice man, but try taking your eyes off him. And his high-pitched, lisping voice, with its dense Brooklyn accent and its precise and eccentric vocabulary, casts a creepy spell. Such obsessive, self-destructive narcissists — characters, in short, much like himself — have always fascinated Toback, and they've inspired his best films: The Pick-Up Artist (1987), Two Girls and a Guy (1997), and — though I am not a convert to its brilliance — his audacious debut, Fingers (1978).

These movies are, in essence, self-portraits. With Tyson, on the other hand, Toback backs off completely — he's not even present as a voice asking questions. He shoots Tyson in tight close-up in a drab living room, and he doesn't shy away when his subject bursts into tears, a sequence as disturbing in its own way as some of the more lacerating archival clips, such as the one of Tyson spewing homophobic, racist threats at an unfortunate reporter.

On the few occasions when Toback does intrude into the material, neither director nor subject is well served. He cuts to a recurrent image of Tyson walking on a beach at sunset; the result plays like a TV commercial for the antidepressant Abilify. He breaks the screen into multi-frames, I presume to mirror Tyson's shattered personality, but it's a hoky technique that should have been retired after Woodstock.

At its best, the film becomes its subject's psychotherapist, allowing him to disgorge with no judgment and little restraint his memories, fantasies, impulses, and fears. A sociological or Freudian interpretation might make sense of it all — Tyson grew up amid violence and poverty, and certainly a major Oedipal complex is involved. But as daunting as he is, Tyson seems to talk mostly about being scared. For a decade he was the world's bogeyman; now he comes off as a frightened child.

Related: Review: The Garden, Review: Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno, Review: A Film Unfinished, More more >
  Topics: Reviews , Science and Technology, Robin Givens, Desiree Washington,  More more >
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