DAVE DAVIS, host:
Former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson is the subject of a new documentary by director James Toback. It tells the story of Tyson's tumultuous life through his own words. Called "Simply Tyson," it opens today in New York and Los Angeles. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: James Toback's enthralling documentary, "Tyson," is all Mike Tyson, all the time. It's an 88-minute stream-of-consciousness monologue that makes you sympathize, wince, cringe, makes you wonder how a man who seemed for all the world an unrepentant thug, an ear biter, a date rapist, could turn out to be so gentle and reflective - not a monster, but a damaged everyman. How did Toback get him to open up? I've interviewed the director a couple of times. He is chummy, expansive, frequently obscene, infamous in earlier times for his gambling and aggressive pursuit of women. Toback prizes people who take wild risks and live on the edge, even - or maybe especially - if they end up disgraced.
So Tyson always beckoned to him. In 1999, Toback put the champ in his polarizing drama "Black and White," where Tyson played himself in an improvised cocktail party scene. Toback directed Robert Downey, Jr. in the role of a gay producer to sidle up to Tyson and make a pass at him, and Tyson wasn't in on the joke and freaked out and knocked Downey down. Good times. Ten years later, Tyson found in Toback not just a film biographer but also a kind of therapist he could open up to. At the heart of the film is a contradiction. Tyson, who grew up in a fractured home in a violent neighborhood, says he spent his life trusting no one and confiding nothing.
Yet here he is, in close-up, pouring out what he thinks and feels in a high, gentle, lisping voice. He describes himself as a shy weakling adolescent, scared of bullies, who spent his free time raising pigeons. The day a neighborhood tough guy picked up one of his birds and slowly wrung its neck was the day Tyson won his first fight. After that, he regarded everyone as a potential pigeon-murderer. Toback mixes new footage of Tyson with bits of old interviews, but it all flows seamlessly. And Tyson can talk. His narration of his matches is driving and incantatory.
(Soundbite of movie, "Simply Tyson")
Mr. MIKE TYSON (Former Heavyweight Boxing Champion): My mission is to go and destroy and not to let anything get involved. And you punch and you get hurt. I refused to being hurt, knocked down and knocked out. I can't lose. I refuse to he lose.
Unidentified Man #1: That's a - that's his right hand. That should be it.
(Soundbite of crowd cheering)
Mr. TYSON: I'm only trying to aim for the back of my opponent's head, trying to find my punch going through him and ending out the back the head. And it sounds like a brutal sport, but it's just a technique and it's just an art. And, you know, people hear me talking in a particular fashion and think of me as some brutal monster, but it's all about the skill, the speed, the accuracy. And that makes basically what I named my style after.
I didn't (unintelligible) he was in it, somewhat primitive skills, that he just didn't put his (unintelligible).
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. TYSON: People don't have the slightest idea how hard it is to break somebody's jaw and break somebody's eye socket, and they think it's just the power, but it's the accuracy and the power, and every punch is thrown with bad intention with the speed of the devil.
Actually, he was crying in there, making woman gestures, like oh, oh, oh.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. TYSON: My job was to hurt people. And I love fighting not because I like hurting people, because I like the after effect of fighting and that I got the job right. Once the job is done correctly, that's my satisfaction of it all.
(Soundbite of music)
EDELSTEIN: The footage behind Tyson's narration is frightening. I've never seen such hard punches thrown so fast. What's just as scary is what he tells interviewers at the end of that fight, that his opponent cried like a little girl. So it's no small thing that he cries on camera in this movie. He says he was an animal back then, and when he couldn't be, he stopped boxing. Tyson is candid, though not detailed or specific about his mistreatment of women. But he still maintains he was wrongly convicted of rape. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn't. But I doubt he could even have known back then what a woman wanted or didn't want. He was so damaged, he had zero capacity for empathy and way too much power.
When his old mentor Cus D'Amato died, Tyson had no one around him who could say, no. The Tyson today, barely in his 40s, his money largely gone, has a different energy than the fighter we see in old footage. His face, even adorned with Maori warrior tattoos, is wide open to the camera. He says he's looking forward to seeing his kids go to school and to being a grandfather. At times, he looks unformed. Toback's revelatory movie, though, might be the start of an amazing second act.
DAVIS: David Edelstein is film critic for Vogue.
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