Judge Michael Nazarewycz has eaten lightning, but yet to crap thunder.
His story. His life. His truth.
Despite the sport's overall recent decline, I have always been a fan of boxing. I've watched a lot of big fights on TV in the last 30 years, but nothing has ever captured the thrill of watching Mike Tyson rocket up the ranks in the 1980s to eventually become the undisputed world heavyweight champion. Every Tyson fight was an event (even though some of those events were measured in seconds, not minutes), and neither before nor since have I seen a boxer with his power and his ferocity. In the wake of those glory years, Tyson's life became a circus (much of that was of his own doing), and the media seemed to define him. With this film, I wanted to hear his definition of himself.
Facts of the Case
In August 2012, Mike Tyson launched a live, one-man Broadway show: Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth. The production eventually went on to tour nationally. This is the film of that show, recorded live to be aired on HBO in November 2013. Like the Broadway stage production, the film is directed by Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing). Running 90 minutes, the show is Tyson standing alone onstage and, with visual aids projected on a large screen behind him, he tells his life story.
Despite some of the sideshow antics surrounding him, Mike Tyson's life has been very serious. His pre-boxing tale is one of a broken home, a violent youth, multiple incarcerations, and the loss of his mother and his mentor. His professional career was a success because he was the best violent man in a room full of violent men, and it was tainted by alleged nefarious actions by boxing promoter Don King. During that time, Tyson's personal life was plagued by a horrendous celebrity marriage to actress Robin Givens, in-the-ring controversy, out-of-the-ring violence, and a rape conviction with subsequent jail time. His post-boxing life includes the accidental death of one his children.
Mike Tyson's life has been very serious. Yet the boxer-turned-celebrity, working from a script written by his current wife Kiki, avoids the opportunity to bare his soul and instead turns Undisputed Truth into Inconceivable Stand-Up.
Have no illusions. This is not a case of a man making light of his past because he's learned to laugh in the face of adversity and face new challenges with a smile. This is schtick. Consider this gem of a line: "The juvenile detention center was like Cheers: there everybody knew my name."
[ crickets ]
Director Spike Lee stops short of adding rim shots to punchlines but something about the audience's reactions throughout the show smells funny. There is laughter where it should not be. I don't know if there is a laugh track, or if audience members were directed to laugh loud, or if audio levels were strategically manipulated. But something about much of the laughter rings false. And I don't think it's me. I've seen enough comedy in my life to understand what is meant to be funny even when it isn't funny to me. I understand that humor is as subjective as you can get. This isn't that.
Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth is a difficult watch, a statement that goes beyond the schtick. Tyson, who by the time this was filmed had been through his material countless times, lacks any sense of storytelling timing or cadence. He hits marks and says lines the way someone who can't waltz makes his own matter worse because he's so busy counting 1-2-3, 1-2-3 in his head—he abandons any and all sense of natural action.
There were interesting facts to be learned about Tyson and his life, but they whizzed by so quickly in an effort to get to the next joke or the next fact that there was no chance for Tyson to seems reflective or for the viewer to digest them.
Tyson also gets winded very easily. I mention this not as a criticism of his physical condition (let's just say I'm no role model), but rather because he is speaking to an audience. After he physically exerts himself (mimicking old boxing moves, for example), he is trying to continue his story through panting breath, which makes him that much more difficult to understand.
I lay as much of this at Spike Lee's feet as I do Tyson's. A director is responsible for controlling the actions of his performers. Here, Lee just lets Tyson ramble to whatever words Kiki has put on paper. This includes an incomprehensible 13-minute stretch focused on a story about Mitch Green, a boxer who Tyson defeated in the ring and also had a physical altercation with in the streets. Thirteen minutes! Mitch Green, who is, at best, a footnote in Tyson's history, gets more story time—15% of the entire show, by the way—than any other part of Tyson's life. It is stupefying and frustrating and ultimately disappointing.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic presentation is perfectly clear, although there is very little to spotlight with a one-man stage show. It captures the lighting well and when the camera cuts to audience members, their shadowy images are clear as well. The mix of Tyson and the crowd heard through the Dolby 5.1 is balanced nicely, and the film's soundtrack, which features songs from artists ranging from Nat King Cole to RUN-DMC, sounds good.
In addition to the digital copy, there is only one extra, a featurette titled "Conversations." This is nothing more than HBO's 2-1/2 minute promo, where "conversations" are actually "soundbites" from Tyson, Lee, and others involved in the project.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Flaws be damned, Spike Lee technically executes the direction of the stage production rather well. One man onstage, even someone who is animated and has visual aids behind him, can become stagnant quick. Lee, using about 10 cameras, deftly keeps a sense of flow about the presentation. At the same time, he never gets too cute with camera movement either. Lee also employs a few sound effects during Tyson's ramblings, (gunshots, a doorbell), but I couldn't tell if they were part of the stage act or added in post.
I would offer some boxing quip like "Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth suffers a TKO," but there are more than enough bad lines in this film that one more is just one too many.
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