"They'll make hypocrite judgments
After the fact
But the name of the game
Is be hit and hit back ... "
-- Warren Zevon, "Boom Boom Mancini"
Boxing is a brutal sport. Does that mean you have to be a brute to succeed in it? Mike Tyson was the youngest ever heavyweight champion in the world; when he stepped into the ring, it was as if he was in absolute control over everything that happened. And when he stepped out, it was as if he had no control over anything that happened. He had a marriage implode in public. He served three years in prison for rape. He became a nightmare-parody of himself, pathetic and terrifying, telling challengers he would eat their children. And now, as seen in James Toback's documentary Tyson, he is older, sadder, sober, off drugs and out of the fight game, trying to battle things you cannot simply strike with your fists.
Directed by friend and fan Toback (Fingers, Black and White), Tyson is a well-made documentary that walks the line between heroic celebration and humble confession. We're reminded, in a fast-paced sequence that cuts between fights, of just how fierce and fearsome Tyson was in the ring, knocking opponents down with lightning speed; he explains his own style, "... punches thrown with bad intent and the speed of the devil." He also speaks frankly about his own mistakes, and about his battles with drugs.
It'd be easy to see parallels between Toback and Tyson; both have fought with addiction and struggled with their way in the world, albeit with Toback doing so under far less scrutiny. And Tyson never strains to reach for meaning to a degree that feels phony or false, although I'm fairly sure that others will be glad to do that on its behalf. (After the screening at the Salle Debussy last night, it was easy to half-jokingly imagine some beret-clad Euro-intellectual over-analyzing the film: "Tyson, he is America ...") But the documentary's not simply plain-spoken interviews, either; Toback judiciously incorporates archival footage, and often breaks the screen into split segments as Tyson's voice and stories overlap themselves.
You also get a sense of Tyson as, oddly enough, a slightly comedic figure, like when he recounts the world leaders he met: "I met the president of Chechnya; I met the president of Istanbul. ..." But you also get a sense of how what made Tyson truly fearsome in the ring wasn't a function of his fists or muscles but of his mind, as he recounts his mental process of going to the ring and how he would know -- simply by the cast of his opponent's eyes -- that they were going to lose because they had let fear into their hearts before he might do the same. Toback cuts real ring footage into this sequence, and it may be the best thing in the film; you can see everything Tyson's talking about as he relates it, in his face and in the face of his opponent, carefully matched to his monologue.
Tyson and Toback's relationship goes back for years, and while the affection between the two was fairly evident as they took the stage before the film, it's only lightly present throughout; Tyson may dismiss his three-year prison sentence for rape as being based on false charges, but it is nonetheless mentioned in the film; it's easy to imagine a version of Tyson that didn't mention or incorporate that incident at all for fear of offending the subject (and credited producer) in question. Tyson isn't just a look at the hitting and hitting back of boxing and a champion who defeated almost everyone who faced him; in its finest moments, it shows us a man determined to stop defeating himself.