Iron Mike was such an enigmatic, larger-than-life figure during his heyday that he never really had to say anything. He let his gloves and his steely glare do the talking. Now, no longer able to show us who he is, he has to be content with talking about who he was. Director James Toback lets him talk. Virtually the entire film is a one-on-one interview (the questions are excised so Mike is basically doing a series of monologues) with Tyson speaking candidly about his childhood, his mentor, sex, fame, regrets, philosophy, fears, etc. There’s a strong sense that there was a great deal of missed opportunity in his life which is strange coming from a man who was at the apex of his sport and who still looms so large over the boxing world. It’s amazing too how distorted his life had become in the public eye. I remember vividly that vicious press conference leading up to the Lennox Lewis bout where he got in a shouting match with a spectator, punctuating it by telling the man “I’ll fuck you til you love me, faggot!”1.
I thought he was a maniac then and years of reportage seemed to confirm it, but what I never saw in the news for example was his last ever bout with Kevin McBride where a humble and world-weary Mike Tyson told the world he didn’t have it in him anymore before wishing his young opponent luck with his career. His dalliance with the media was sort of summed up in that infamous Holyfield rematch. Everyone focused on the ear biting and Tyson was vilified and banned for a time from boxing. No one seemed to notice, the referee included, that Holyfield had illegally headbutted the man for more than six rounds with no later reprimand or fine for his actions—from Tyson’s perspective, of course, his eye socket as well as his career was being put in grave danger. So we have a film with nothing but Tyson’s perspective, and he paints himself into a few corners, but he also paints a complex and often terrifying portrait.
What’s most surprising about this presentation is how articulate and sensitive a man Mike Tyson reveals himself to be. He recites a beautiful poem by Oscar Wilde. He recounts his early life on the streets as a crook like an impressionistic sketch. He weeps at the mention of the death of his mentor and perhaps the best friend he ever had, Cus D’Amato. He catalogs the complex emotions involved in the ring, in his sex life, in prison and in being a man of extremes, for better or worse. His own stories often verge on the poetic thanks to some incisive sound editing. Toback layers and multiplies Tyson’s speech in many scenes so that it takes on a mantric, song-like quality. Especially impressive is Tyson’s take on his sex life which is rendered like the biblical Song of Songs with Tyson describing the ideal woman as powerful and confident before comparing women to wounded prey to be devoured whole. The impression is of a man who gives everything of himself so completely that he necessarily contradicts himself, straddling both the extreme and its extreme opposite. Indeed, he tells us that he only knows how to give love, but is incapable of accepting it.
This is a fairly unique kind of documentary and it’s refreshing to see one that doesn’t pretend to have any objectivity by having multiple personas lend their analysis. Of course Mike isn’t capable of being objectively honest, but it’s more interesting to see him be honest about his own thoughts and experiences. There isn’t a sense that he has anything to hide, nor does Toback ever give the impression of trying to create a bias for or against the boxer (especially surprising considering that Tyson is a long-time friend of the director as well as an executive producer for this film). It’s also nice to see a biographical film that doesn’t involve a film crew traipsing through the house the subject was reared in or through a vacant playground at dawn, the subject gazing profoundly into the horizon, in order to capture supposedly candid “moments” to fill the space between acts.
The director runs multiple moving split-screens at several points, including during many of the highlight bouts of Tyson’s career. This device chops up the visual continuity and forces the viewer to focus on a continuous stream of monologue as one screen box disappears while another surfaces. Thankfully, however, Toback kept the archival footage to a minimum. While it is interesting to actually see some things in conjunction with Tyson’s recollections, the film prefers to let Mike tell his story instead of letting the old reels or the stills do it. I don’t know if this will do anything special for boxing fans as this isn’t a sports documentary per se, even though it has some good fight footage. I think if you’re expecting to reminisce about Tyson’s days as a world-beater you’ll be largely disappointed.
It’s a little disappointing to me that Tyson’s dealings with Don King were largely sidestepped. Mike says some pretty nasty things about him and talks about how he “stomped” him in the street, but there’s no mention of how they came together in the first place or what kept them together so long. However, this is Tyson on Tyson so it makes sense that something he views largely as a negative facet of his career he would rather not dwell on. The same can be said for his total dismissal of Desiree Washington, a woman he was infamously convicted of raping. Then again, he has always denied the charge and here, amusingly enough, he declares that he took advantage of other women but not her. Maybe that’s all there is to be said. Overall, I think one’s enjoyment is largely predicated upon how interesting one finds the subject in the first place. The subject is a rather unique individual (to put it meekly), but there’s humanity here in a place you wouldn’t expect to find it.
1 There’s damn near a cult fascination with Mike’s verbal quips in general anyway, but this film will easily sate anyone looking for some unintentional humor. There’s at least one thread on imdb.com that ranks his amusing outbursts.