"Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!"
– Oscar Wilde
You don't expect to hear Mike Tyson reading Oscar Wilde's The Ballad of Reading Gaol, but then much of what you see and hear in James Toback's Tyson is pleasantly unexpected. This complex and fascinating portrait of the fighter, who hit dizzying highs at such a young age before sinking to such pathetic lows, is essentially a single monologue, in which Tyson himself tells his version of his own life story. The only time Toback cuts away from Tyson's face is when he shows us footage of the fighter in action, and reminds us how fast and brutal he was, the way he used to tear into his opponents like a bulldog. The Mike Tyson who sits in front of Toback's cameras to recount his tale is older and sadder, speaking with unfailing honesty and occasionally struggling to find the right words as his emotions threaten to overcome him. He seems so vulnerable, and it's hard to reconcile this man with the one who was the most fearsome fighter on the planet.
And boy, he was fearsome. Tyson opens with footage of the boxer's greatest night, November 22nd 1986, when he destroyed Trevor Berbick to become the heavyweight champion of the world. He moved with jaw-dropping speed and landed his punches with stunning accuracy and ferocity, defeating Berbick in the second round to claim the title. He was twenty years old. Tragically, the man who helped Tyson towards that championship was not there to enjoy the glory, as his trainer Cus D'Amato had died a year before, and it's tempting to view his passing as the major turning point in Tyson's life. D'Amato had taken the young fighter under his wing and nurtured him, helping him refine his fighting style, and eventually becoming a surrogate father figure for him. As Tyson sits in front of Toback's camera and recalls his relationship with his mentor, he chokes back the tears but he soldiers on, determined to bear his soul. For many, this will be the first, startling sign of humanity that we've seen in a man who has so often been depicted as an animal.
Tyson feels like a confessional. Toback keeps his camera tight on his subject's face, and Mike Tyson looks right at us as he remembers every unsavoury incident that has coloured his eventful forty years. He takes us back to streets of Brooklyn on which he grew up, surrounded by crooks and dealers, and falling almost inevitably into a life of crime. He talks about the breathing problems he has suffered from ever since he was a child, and how he used to attack his opponents from the first bell, desperate to finish the fight early before his shortness of breath became a factor. And he recalls an encounter from his youth when he beat down a kid who killed one of his beloved pigeons; remembering the sense of power and confidence he felt when he defeated this early opponent and saying "No one was ever going to fuck with me again, because I'd fuckin' kill 'em".
There are flashes of anger throughout Tyson, notably when he talks about Desiree Washington, the woman who accused him of rape in 1992 (a charge he still denies), or whenever the name of Don King pops up. He also displays unpleasant bursts of misogyny, talking about how he likes to dominate women "like a tiger devours its prey", and admitting he fought Berbick while suffering from gonorrhoea that he contracted from a liaison with "a prostitute, or some other filthy lady". But at other times the fighter can be surprisingly articulate and even charming in the way he occasionally stumbles for more grandiose words (like skulduggery, which he misuses) with which to express himself. The portrait Tyson gives us is of a confused, self-critical and searching man, keen to come to terms with his own failures.
James Toback has occasionally been guilty of putting a little too much of himself into his movies, but here he simply acts as a silent off-screen witness as his friend opens his heart. The film has been compiled from more than thirty hours of interviews, and Toback makes impressive use of archive footage, much of which shows Tyson at his very worst (including a press conference that ends with him hurling aggressive homophobic insults at the reporters). Sometimes Toback edits for effect, with his frequent use of split-screen and overlapping voices doing little to enhance the viewing experience, but his handling of Tyson's fight footage is frequently brilliant. In a couple of sequences, we watch Tyson in action as he narrates, describing his emotions and thoughts as he enters the ring and prepares to fight, and his description fuses brilliantly with what we see, drawing us into the mentality of a fighter. There's a great scene when we watch Tyson staring down his opponent prior to a bout, refusing to blink or look away as he seaches for that tiny chink in his armour – suddenly, we see the other fighter turn his eyes downwards, "and at that moment," Tyson recalls with satisfaction, "I knew I had beaten him".
Tyson continues through the prison sentence, the conversion to Islam, the Holyfield fiasco, and the final, money-driven fights in which he appeared as a sad shadow of his once-great self – and what, ultimately, does it say about Mike Tyson? The film seems to portray him as a classical tragic figure, destroyed by hubris and his own flaws, and doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again, but the final act shows him trying to find the right path, one step at a time. After viewing Tyson, will you like the man any more than you did before you watched it? Maybe not, but you might understand him a little more, and while this documentary lacks the opposing points of view that would have lent it objectivity, the picture remains a compelling character study built upon the openness and intensity of its subject. One wonders where Mike Tyson will go from here, as he tries to rebuild his broken life, and to defeat his inner demons. "The past is history" he says ruefully, "the rest is a mystery".
Read my interview with James Toback here.