Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth shares the title of the former heavyweight boxing champ's recently published memoir, but Tyson's one-man show is less interested in running down his complete history than with providing him a venue to tell his side of some interesting stories. It's like a 90-minute BS session on a Broadway stage, or perhaps more accurately, "Mike Tyson: The Stand-Up Years."
Standing in front of a giant screen that functions as a kind of interactive slide show, Tyson doesn't have the consistent ease with speaking that you'd get with a seasoned stand-up comic, but he has charm, energy, and motor-mouthed bravado that combine to goose laughs from many unlikely topics. The section where Tyson discusses his first moments in prison after being convicted on a rape charge (he still affirms his innocence in the show) -- and then later when The Brady Bunch's Florence Henderson comes to visit him while he's in there -- unfurls like someone who is a big fan of Richard Pryor. That said, whether or not Tyson is doing a conscious Pryor impression, he pulls it off surprisingly well. Naturally, his patter is peppered with "n-word"s and "f-bomb"s, and it helps give the feeling of a neighborhood guy reflecting on the old days. At one moment, when recounting advice he got from an older kid during his Brownsville, Brooklyn, childhood, Tyson credibly brings that character to life. His performance isn't always quite as seamless, but Tyson's presence keeps things engaging when the words get a little clunky.
Working from a script credited to his wife, Kiki, Undisputed Truth almost entirely touches on Tyson's already-quite-public highlights and lowlights. For the most part, this is not a look into the private workings of a public champion. During an anecdote about Tyson going to his soon-to-be-ex-wife Robins Givens's house for some break-up sex, an audience member yells out, "Brad Pitt!," spoiling the twist of who was there with Givens when Tyson got there. But then, the theater audience is no doubt almost all Mike Tyson fans. They probably know these events front to back already. The jolt of pleasure for them (and us) comes from hearing Tyson put his own colorful spin on events. He has a cleaned-up, less raging-bull-ish attitude these days, but Tyson still manages to amusingly spit venom at Givens and his former manager Don King.
He mentions the infamous incident where he bit off part of Evander Holyfield's ear during a boxing match, and seems genuinely regretful. As a more recent picture of Holyfield and Tyson smiling together goes up on the screen behind him, Tyson says, "He's a class act. Debonair. I look like I could be Holyfield's fat grandmother. Throw a wig and a dress on me, I'm Madea."
Tyson's comic tour de force comes during a prolonged retelling of his street fight with Mitch Green. Tyson had beaten Green in the ring in 1986, and two years later, while Tyson was the heavyweight champion, Green confronted Tyson in a Harlem nightclub. Although, Tyson says he tried to use some "Jewish etiquette" he had learned since becoming a professional, the fight eventually got physical. At one point, while recounting the conflict, Tyson goes offstage and comes out with a Jheri-curl wig on, to parody Green's hairstyle of the time.
Spike Lee, who directed the show both on-stage and on-screen, takes his typical approach to shooting stage-bound work. That is to say, he covers the stage with what feels like five hundred cameras and then cuts between them rapidly. Oddly enough, though, this time it pretty much works. Tyson is such a ball of energy, and the show jumps from anecdote to anecdote so fluidly, that the constant cutting feeds into the flow of the piece, rather than distracting from it (like it did, for example, with Lee's headache-inducing 2001 film of the Roger Guenvuer Smith play, A Huey P. Newton Story). On the other hand, Lee can't refrain from reprising that fake-bullet-time gag from The Original Kings of Comedy when Tyson references The Matrix, so he hasn't given up all the gimmicks.
Tyson fans are sure to enjoy Undisputed Truth. As Tyson points out in the early going, James Toback's documentary on the fighter was made right as he was getting out of rehab for cocaine addiction, so the tone was a bit dark. Even though the show closes emotionally with Tyson recounting the death of his 4-year-old daughter Exodus, Undisputed Truth shows the former champ in high spirits. His playful, good-humored attitude makes this a good watch for outsiders too. In fact, for me, Tyson pulled off the filmed-memoir-stage-show format better than Carrie Fisher's Wishful Drinking, which also premiered on HBO. And while Toback's film is certainly the fuller, less superficial portrait of the man, Undisputed Truth delivers solid entertainment.