May 14, 2009

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Tyson (R)
Mike Tyson attempts to explain his life in Tyson, a monologue about his life in and out of the ring.

Mike Tyson doesn’t always look at the camera but he is mostly talking to the camera in this one-sided conversation about his life. He was born poor and picked on, learned to fight, learned to steal, turned his life around with boxing, found a mentor, lost a mentor, had destructive relationships with women, was convicted of rape, was a champion in the ring, was over-the-hill in the ring, was betrayed by friends, bit a man’s ear, decided that his heart wasn’t in boxing, mellowed with time and still harbors resentments. Mike Tyson is complicated. He is also brutal, confusing, sad, egotistical and weirdly hopeful. I didn’t realize how much I knew about Mike Tyson’s life (the conviction, the break with Don King, the marriage to Robin Givens) before this movie and while I didn’t go in to the movie thinking I was particularly interested in his life I was surprised to find myself kind of riveted at times.

Tyson is mostly told through pictures and some video narrated mostly by Tyson’s own explanation of what was happening (often times, what was happening in his head) at the time. The difference here between this and your standard documentary about a famous person’s life is that you’re hearing in as unfiltered a way as possible Tyson’s own thoughts, his thoughts then and his thoughts now about what he did and how he reacted then. It reveals him to be more introspective than you might have guessed and more childish and petulant that you might have hoped. It makes for a portrait that is, surprisingly, kind of fascinating even when you are repelled by its subject.

Is Tyson an apology? Is it a soft-pedaling of the crimes of a violent man? I would tend to say no because I left feeling I understood him better without feeling particularly sorry for him or that some of the darker sides of his character were excused away. But it was an interesting (not a very explosive word but I can’t think of a better one) examination of how he thinks and of his life without the standard E! True Hollywood Story flourishes. This isn’t “the truth “about Mike Tyson or even the complete story of Mike Tyson; it is mostly what Mike Tyson feels now about what he did then, with examples of both a better understanding with time and lasting anger.

Tyson is probably fascinating for a boxing fan for all the little insights it offers not from a spectator but a participant in the sport but it’s unexpectedly just as interesting if you don’t have an encyclopedic memory of every Tyson fight. Tyson offers a surprisingly raw portrait of a complicated and at times disturbing man. B-

Rated R for language including sexual references. Written and directed by James Toback, Tyson is an hour and 30 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Sony Pictures Classics.