CANNES FILM REVIEW: James Toback’s ‘Tyson’

'Tyspn' 2008

By Ray Bennett

CANNES – When he’s not pounding very large men to the ground, ex-fighter Mike Tyson speaks directly to the camera in James Toback’s film “Tyson” and it’s hard not to flinch.

More a testimony for the defense than a documentary, it’s a sympathetic portrait of a complex man driven by an anger that still bubbles beneath the surface.

The former world champion’s eyes, which were as devastating as his piston-fast fists in the boxing ring, reveal little but his self-serving words tell everything. His candor appears sometimes unwitting but the result is a powerful film that will appeal to sports fans and those who respond to the visceral clamor of the fight world.

Toback uses split screens, over-dubs and a mixture of interior close-ups and exterior long-shots, and he allows the boxer to portray himself as a gentle soul born on mean streets where constant bullying forced him to employ his brute strength to survive. A broken home, crime, correction facilities and finally the boxing ring, it’s a familiar tale.

Not so familiar were the fighter’s extraordinary dedication, steeped in the lessons of the great champions, and his unflinching impulse to drive toward and destroy his opponent. Toback shows nearly all of Tyson’s knockouts and tracks his rise to the big titles, big money and world fame, and then the falls from grace including failed marriages, a spell in prison on a rape conviction, and ultimately the loss of his titles and most of his money.

In every circumstance in his life, Tyson believes himself to be the innocent party. He became a ferocious fighter to avoid being humiliated. His marriage broke down because they were both kids. His rape charge was “false” and the victim was “a wretched swine of a woman.” A big-time boxing promoter was “a slimy reptilian motherfucker.” He bit opponent Evander Holyfield’s ear off because the man kept head-butting him and made him insane in the ring.

But Tyson says he made sure his six kids got some of all that money; he found Islam in prison; and he’s been through rehabilitation. Now, he says, his anger is directed only toward himself. “I’m not an animal anymore,” he says in his high-pitched lisp staring at the camera through a dramatic Maori facial tattoo.

For some reason, Toback never mentions Tyson’s voice, not that you can blame him.

Venue: Festival de Cannes, Un Certain Regard; Cast: Mike Tyson. Director: James Toback. Director of photography: Larry McConkey. Music: Salaam Remi. Editor: Aaron Yanes. Pproducers: James Toback, Damon Bingham. Executive producers: Mike Tyson, Harlan Werner, Nicholas Jarecki, Henry Jarecki, Bob Yari. Sales: Wild Bunch; No MPAA rating, running time, 90 mins.

This review appeared in The Hollywood Reporter.

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