During a recent interview on the Adam Carolla Podcast, director James Toback, who worked with boxer Mike Tyson and Robert Downey Jr. in his film Black and White, declared that Tyson had “character,” adding that he was not sure if Downey had the same.
Carolla responded as if it were a slam against Downey, which it may have sounded like until Toback struggled to explain his statement to mean that there is a sort of magnetic draw to Tyson the person which Downey may only posses with his acting. It very may well have been taken as a compliment by Downey; while the actor may have had his public stumbles, he’s been nowhere near the lightning rod of controversy that has followed Tyson throughout his life.
It is this “character” which prompted Toback to focus his lens solely on the subject in his latest documentary, Tyson. Punctuated with small clips of archival footage, Tyson simply allows the man himself to analyze his life, his career, and himself. The result is at turns revealing and insightful, yet at the end we do not feel much closer to the subject, only catching glimpses of the deep psychological scars that may never heal.
Toback uses an overlapping narrative, filling the screen, Brady Bunch-style, with several shots of the same interview and allowing his answers to overlap one another on the soundtrack, as if to represent the multiple voices within Tyson’s own head, alternately shouting to be heard.
He appears today a manifestation of his legend. His face inked with his Maori tribal tattoo pokes out of a smartly dressed, physically impressive 40-something looking like he’s dressed for casual Friday at the office.
The chapters of his life covered are his early rise to prominence, his rape conviction, his tumultuous relationship with promoter and manager Don King and his attempt to reclaim former glory. Each segment teeters on the edge of full-blown confessional, but, like the sort in which he excels, he knows just when to protect himself and keep guard of the more damaging blows. For instance, when the name Deseree Washington comes up (the former Miss USA contestant for which Tyson was found guilty of raping), he refers to her as a “wretched swine,” and his anger starts to flood forth like a flurry of head blows. The same anger starts to seep out when King is the subject , who Tyson claims siphoned almost his entire fortune.
Toback never delves deeper into these issues, and the result may at times be frustrating to the viewer, but, as he once was in the ring, Tyson still knows how to captivate.
Tyson does contain one truly cathartic moment when it comes to the opposite sex. During a startling stream of consciousness, he proclaims his desire to both love and control women, to exploit his dominance, yet submit wholly to them. It is an unsettling moment of truth that could be more telling than any evidence submitted in his aforementioned rape trial.
But Tyson is equally as impressive in its star’s coverage of his meteoric rise. I still remember the stunning moment when nobody contender Buster Douglas withstood Tyson’s blows and lasted long enough to topple the champ in the ring. Even though I tend to typically root for the underdog, I felt disheartened as a teen by seeing this pillar of strength brought to his knees.
Tyson does not elicit any such sympathy, but rather allows us into his muddled mind during those exhausting rounds (as well the infamous Evander Holyfield ear chomp). It’s like a Tyson life highlight (and lowlight) reel, with the star’s audio commentary track turned on – it provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse, but does not elaborate too long before hopping to the next chapter.
We are invited closer into the ring than we’ve been before with Mike Tyson, but we are still kept at arm’s length, which, come to think of it, may be a safe distance to be.