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Sony Pictures // R // August 18, 2009
List Price: $28.96 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Casey Burchby | posted August 11, 2009 | E-mail the Author

"My style is impetuous, my defense is impregnable and I'm just ferocious. I want your heart. I want to eat your children. Praise be to Allah."

      - Mike Tyson, prior to being defeated by Lennox Lewis, 2002

There's something admirable about Mike Tyson, and something deplorable. His rapid rise and quick accumulation of boxing titles are unrivaled in the sport. His achievements in the ring speak to a strong determination, unprecedented athletic ability, and incredible focus. As a man, Tyson always seemed deadly dangerous. Some would say that Tyson projected this self-described "ferocity" for the benefit of fans and to provoke fear in his opponents. However, that viewpoint now seems doubtful. Even if it were once true, somewhere along the way that notion was lost, as Tyson's violent behavior and criminal record suggest.

James Toback's documentary film, Tyson, strips back the carapace of sensational media coverage and ostentatious self-invention that has defined the boxer for twenty years. By allowing its subject to speak for himself, the film tries to locate the real man.

Tyson's upbringing in a crime-ridden, poverty-stricken section of Brooklyn would have doomed him to a miserable existence - he says he never expected to make it to 40 - if he hadn't been rescued by legendary boxing trainer Cus D'Amato. Following his release from a juvenile detention center, Tyson was virtually adopted by D'Amato, who taught Tyson the value of discipline and the finer points of the sweet science from ages 13 to 19.

In vintage interview footage, and in Tyson's own anecdotes, D'Amato is concerned, parental, and giving. Tyson may have emerged from D'Amato's tutelage as one of the greatest boxers in the sport's history, but his presence in the ring doesn't reflect D'Amato's spirit. Tyson's speed, strength, and ruthlessness suggest nothing less than some frightening and lethal combination of pit bull, tiger, and great white shark. The fear in the eyes of his opponents - on plain view here in archival ringside footage - is the fear of rational beings confronted with overwhelming amoral force.

Ironically - or, maybe, naturally - Tyson is driven by fear in life and in the ring, as he admits several times in the film. The fear stems from the constant threat of physical danger - and death - in the old neighborhood. The fear was turned into an unemotional capability for violence, honed by years of training and nurtured by people who sought to profit from it.

Filmmaker James Toback has a reputation for dealing with topics and themes surrounding notions of masculinity and the consequences of picking at chinks in male armor. Placing Tyson's supernatural abilities and achievements side-by-side with his fear-riddled sex-obsessed psyche seems like an almost comically ideal subject for Toback. But the director, in his first documentary, does not romanticize Mike Tyson, even though the repeated shots of the boxer strolling along a deserted twilit beach are a bit much. By the same token, Toback avoids demonizing Tyson.

Toback's film is a forthright examination of Tyson's baffling, coiled personality and his limited development as a human being - which goes hand-in-hand with his palpable self-hatred. (There's a lot of DeNiro's fictionalized Jake LaMotta in the real Tyson, which is a testament to the misery of professional boxers, the verisimilitude of Scorsese's film, or both.) The "limited development" I mention is as much a question of Tyson's character as it is a question of the degree to which his trainers, managers, and "business partners" prevented him from experiencing adolescence and young adulthood in anything like a normal way.

In Tyson, the boxer speaks for himself, directly to the camera, in a relaxed milieu. As interviewer, Toback is absent. Other voices pipe up via carefully selected archival news and interview footage, most notably Cus D'Amato and Robin Givens. But Tyson's often delusional and contradictory voice is compelling enough to sustain the film's ninety-minute length. He dwells upon his misdeeds, but without seeming to understand then. He attributes many of his transgressions to youth - even though those transgressions are spread throughout his life, right up to the present. (It hasn't been two years since he pled guilty to cocaine possession and driving under the influence.) Tyson does discuss the divorce, the rape conviction, the jail time, the attack on Don King, but does so without ever identifying particular fault on his part. Yet, in general terms, he despises himself and does not feel like a success. As the film ended, I wondered if there is anyone who'd want to break bread with Mike Tyson? He comes across as an unlikable guy, full of himself while hating himself - and much of the rest of the world.


The Package
The single disc comes in a standard keepcase with acceptable collage-style cover art. The keepcase is one of the new "eco-friendly" variety, with an annoyingly large "recycle" symbol punched through the front cover and a fan of pie-shaped holes behind the disc hub. Why are DVD collectors forced to sacrifice durability and quality for the sake of the phony lip service that the film industry feels forced to provide environmental causes? How about, instead of shittifying existing products such as the keepcase by punching a bunch of moronic holes in it, they come up with some new product that simultaneously achieves goals of style, functionality, and conservation? I pick on no distributor in particular - these enviro-keepcases keep popping up in a seemingly random pattern - but this storage unit reflects thoughtless design and needs to cease immediately.

The Video
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment is to be commended for the transfer of Tyson, which is richly-hued and anamorphically enhanced. The feature's 1.85:1 aspect ratio is retained. In the post-production process, the filmmakers seem to have lingered over some ill-advised tweaking of colors - there is some rather odd-looking saturation in some sequences. Those choices do not reflect on the transfer, however, which is excellent, with bottomless blacks and negligible artifacts.

The Sound
The fact that there's a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack here seems like overkill for a documentary, especially since surrounds are barely present. Nonetheless, it's a balanced mix. Tyson's voice is always clearly recorded, even when his speech is jumbled and practically incoherent.

The Extras
There are a handful of decent extra features here, especially for a documentary that saw limited release. James Toback contributes a somewhat self-congratulatory and didactic commentary track, which isn't to say that it's uninteresting. There are also three featurettes: A Day with James Toback (16:11), Iron Mike: Toback Talks Tyson (11:49), and The Fabulous Picture Show (13:08). The latter feature is mislabeled on the disc as The Big Picture Show; it comprises an episode from the Al Jazeera televison series. All three features consist of Toback talking about the film, and are a bit redundant. Still, along with the theatrical trailer, this is a good selection of features for a documentary disc.

Final Thoughts

Mike Tyson's inability to explicate his own life story is what makes James Toback's film so compelling. A man of limited intellectual means, Tyson is nonetheless a fascinating subject, and his story says a lot about professional sports and the environments in which great athletes are shaped. Highly recommended.

Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.

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