Sony // 2008 // 90 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // August 20th, 2009
Who would ever think some poor boy from Brooklyn would get a parade in the city of Moscow?
On November 22, 1986, twenty year old Mike Tyson became the youngest heavyweight champion in history by destroying Trevor Berbick at 2:35 of the second round. On February 11, 1990, he was knocked out in the tenth round of his championship defense by James "Buster" Douglas, counting the first loss of his career. Between these dates, Tyson was not only the most intimidating, dominant champion in history, but also one of the biggest public figures of the time and the last American boxer to come close to that level of celebrity. This kid from the Brooklyn ghettos had his life play out in front of the cameras and the tragedy that became his world made him one of the most divisive characters in recent memory. Director James Toback (Black and White), a long time friend of Tyson's, caught the ex-champ as he sat in a drug rehab facility. He set a camera up, sat Mike Tyson on a couch, asked him a few questions, and let the man speak for himself. The result is a startlingly honest portrait of a man who few people know but of whom everybody has an opinion.
Outside of the occasional montage showing highlights from his career, the sum of Tyson is the boxer sitting on a couch telling you his life story. It is rare to spend a film with a single narrator, but it's rarer still that the individual both has such a fascinating life story and is such an engaging storyteller. Tyson bares it all for the camera, letting us into the trauma of his childhood; all the bullying and humiliation, robbed at gunpoint at eight years old for his fifteen cents of milk money. It's easy to see how such a desperate upbringing would lead somebody into actions that would wind them up in Juvie and, as a young teen, this is where Tyson found himself. This would be his salvation because, through this, he was taken in by legendary trainer of Floyd Patterson, Cus D'Amato, who ran a small boxing gym in Catskill, NY.
"Iron" Mike Tyson was born here. Under the tutelage of D'Amato, be became the "most dangerous man on the planet," leading him up the ranks where Tyson left destruction in his wake. The salvation offered to Tyson by Cus and by boxing, however, would also lead to his downfall. Raw ability, skill, and charisma catapulted a boy who never had a time into multi-million dollar fight contracts and all the luxury anybody could ever wish for. Cus died before he could see Tyson become champion. Had he lived, who knows what would have become of Tyson. Without his influence, Tyson's discipline and heart degenerated along with his life. His marriage to Robin Givens, his rape trial and subsequent conviction, the chomping of Evander Holyfield's ear all played out in front of the camera and, in the court of public opinion, right or wrong, Tyson was turned into a villain; he had his humanity stripped from him and became a sideshow, a train wreck that everyone craned their heads to watch. Tyson does a lot of good in restoring this man's humanity.
Toback's production style adds an additional element of meaning to the film. As Tyson speaks, the image often fragments into split screens and collages, with different footage of Tyson discussing the same incident, overlapping and often in contradiction with one another. The method is very effective in showing the fractured mind of his subject, who admits that he went somewhat crazy in prison. The different voices inhabiting his head fight for positioning and the chaos that he lives with comes clear.
Sony's DVD of Tyson is very good, stacked with far more extras than are usually afforded to a documentary release. The image and sound are both fine, but keep in mind that this is Tyson sitting on a couch speaking to a camera. There is very little for either of them to do. The extras are strong, starting off with an informative audio commentary track with Toback, who tells a pretty good story in his own right. He takes some time to discuss the production, but spends much of his time on his two decade long friendship with Tyson and the overwhelmingly positive reception the film received at Cannes. A fifteen minute featurette about the publicity for the film, called "A Day with James Toback" is interesting because we get to see the director and Tyson interacting with each other and the public. A discussion with the director about Tyson and his mental state follows, which is somewhat redundant, but he give more context to the film. An episode of The Big Picture Show out of Australia, featuring another interview with the director, rounds us out.
All the talk of a bad upbringing, the curse of celebrity, and a lack of understanding about the subject's life is not meant to excuse Mike Tyson. He never asks for forgiveness, only a forum to tell his story. These ninety minutes are his chance to say his piece, something he never really got when he was relevant. The most important thing about Tyson is that before seeing this, it was easy for me to think about the man in the abstract, to dismiss him as an icon or a symbol. Now, after seeing him bare his soul, I will never again think of him as anything but a person.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R