by Chuck Williamson
For James Toback, Mike Tyson has always been a paradoxical figure: a tough, taciturn bruiser, bigger-than-life but broken-down, snarling with cold menace but slinking into shadows, spouting tough guy rhetoric while riffing on Greta Garbo’s character from Grand Hotel: “I vant to be alone.” He bristles with piss and rage, chewing scenery and swinging fists—but at the same time, these extended cameos hint at a vulnerability and ennui that can only be erased by anonymity and the erasure of celebrity. Black and White (1999), for instance, tracks Tyson down in a back corner, lost in a melancholic isolation that ignites into brutal, homophobic violence when a fey, lisping Robert Downey, Jr. badgers the pugilist with celebrity-obsessed come-ons; his role in When Will I Be Loved (2005), meanwhile, gives us a Tyson attempting to break away from fame’s manacles by reconstructing the self through the unconvincing pseudonym of “Buck from Minnesota.”
Now, with Tyson, Toback pulls “Iron” Mike out of the periphery, promoting him from bit player to major performer. But the film grafts onto its threadbare “rise-and-fall” narrative the same ambiguities and anxieties that characterized the heavyweight in those previous films. Throughout his pained, discursive confessional, Tyson alternates between macho discourse and wounded contemplation, howling tirades and choked-back tears. While the film’s prolonged interview goes through the biographical checkpoints—starting with Tyson as an insecure, troubled youth taken under the wing of trainer Cus D’Amato and concluding with the downward spiral of sex, drugs, and ear-biting—its chief attraction is not narrative but psychological. The film’s structure—where Tyson’s authorial voice competes with fragmentary montage and interspersed footage—cuts through the thin veil of objectivity and attains, instead, a more personal, psychological truth where the viewer is asked to fill in textual gaps and infer meaning from a tangled discourse.
Tyson is at its best when it mines these cracks and contradictions—and many of these moments come from the rambling, sometimes contradictory nature of the boxer’s monologue. When discussing the match that won him the heavyweight championship, for instance, Tyson intersperses the epic—a play-by-play analysis of the match—with the pathetic—a personal recollection of the inflamed gonorrhea he had contracted the night before but was too ashamed to be treated for. In another sequence, Tyson berates his former manager Don King as a “slimy, reptilian motherfucker” who leached onto his fame, only to come to the sad conclusion that he may have been a leach himself. At times, even the film’s formal elements visualize these ambiguities. One of the film’s most powerful moments mixes archival footage with collaged soundbites, overlaying empowered tough talk with the anxious—even fearful—mutterings of being scared before every fight; the conflicting words and images collide and coalesce, highlighting the elusive and contradictory nature of its subject. In several scenes, Toback fragments the images through multi-paneled split-screens while Tyson’s offbeat, outsider-poet lyricism loops and overlaps over the soundtrack. The film patches together, from the fragments of memory and narrative, an unstable, incongruous image of Mike Tyson that is both fascinating and multi-layered.
This does not mean that Tyson does not overstay his welcome. At times, his presence can be suffocating—particularly when Tyson’s unchallenged misogyny and predilection for cliché occasionally hijack the film. Tyson’s discrediting of Desiree Washington’s rape allegations—she’s the “lying whore,” he’s the helpless victim—is but one instance where Tyson’s troubling views on women reduce our interest in him; it does not help that this is one of the few subjects the film chooses to gloss over and take at face value. Even worse, Tyson eventually stuffs its final act with feel-good treacle and convenient clichés, allowing its subject to wallow in an assortment of family-first, love-conquers-all banalities better suited for Hollywood biopics. By allowing Tyson to construct his own narrative conclusion, the film ultimately devolves into cheap, sentimental claptrap where redemption and happiness can be attained through—what else?—the love of a child.
Or does it? In the film’s final shot, Tyson leers at the camera and delivers, without irony, a groan-worthy denouement: “My past is history, and my future’s a mystery.” But instead of cutting away, the camera pushes in for an extreme close-up, lingering long on Tyson’s sickly face as he wheezes and gasps. Even to the end, the film seems content to show us the cracks beneath Tyson’s façade.