I think that it’s fitting that the first of the FIVE STAR FILMS entries for a documentary is not only about a personal hero of mine but one that significantly elevates its already fascinating and revelatory content with style. There had been many documentaries about Mike Tyson set at different stages of his illustrious (or infamous) career as well as a forgettable T.V movie; James Toback’s Tyson wipes through those contenders like its subject carved a path of destruction to the world title.
1. The Mentor
Constantine “Cus” D’Amato handled the careers of Floyd Patterson, José Torres and most famously Mike Tyson. Watching the generosity, wisdom and technical brilliance of this maestro, crafting the perfect weapon in the young troubled man from Brooklyn is nothing short of miraculous. It fits all the cliche “diamond in the rough” to a ‘T’. In the twilight years of his life he was reinvigorated by this kid’s potential. On the other hand Tyson was floored by his love and generosity. Despite a criminal record at such a young age, Cus welcomed Tyson into his home with open arms. At a time in his life where he was constantly under threat, Cus showered him with love, support and motivation and the thug he’d been crafted into was completely washed away. Watching Tyson talk about the man that he credits for taking the most fatherly role in his life is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking.
2. Fear Leads to Godliness
Toback’s Tyson is an immersive experience. His technique uses interviews with the subject from what appear to be different sessions and they’re overlapped and occasionally used like a chorus of conflicting voices that are present in his mind. The most powerful scene in the film is Tyson describing his preparation for a fight in his prime and his process to physically and psychologically defeat his opponents. It’s disorientating and leaves you with an electrical charge. See it below and whet your appetite.
In the wake of Cus’ death Tyson may as well have been an ATM for a series of promoters, managers and hangers-on. Leech may be too kind a word for this litany of vampires syphoning off his earnings and his life-force. The boxing business is one of the most crooked and corrupt arms of professional sports. The athletes endure torture, risk permanent injury, touch a singular glory or horrendous defeat alone and yet those in control of the ‘exhibition’ invariably always win. Listening to those swooping in in the wake of Cus’ death and culminating with the apex predatory promoter Don King and his multi-million dollar extortion antics leave you apathetic when you hear that Tyson confronted him about the theft after being imprisoned and beat him within in an inch of his life.
After the controversial rape conviction that to this day Tyson refutes as complete falsification we watch a man revert to those survival instincts that had once kept him alive into the rough Brooklyn streets that surely would have killed him without the intervention of Cus. Gone is the softly spoken, destroyer of wills and instead he’s a vessel of fear driven hate slurs to his opponents and particularly anyone that he perceived as a threat. It’s safe to say that prison is an inherently dehumanising experience but seeing the transformation of Tyson is simply devastating. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, people saw a monster and convicted him and made a trained killer monstrous. Tyson comes out of prison not being able to disassociate from the constant threats omnipresent behind bars. It’s also a Tyson that’s vastly more cynical about the fight business, having to posture as someone to fear instead of psychologically crushing his opponents with his determination. The contrast is incredible.
Neither Toback nor Tyson want the audience to absolve him of past sins; instead they want to strip away the monster and reveal the deeply flawed man. The greatest bout of Tyson’s life was no singular opponent but him being an experimental pawn in the battle of nature versus nurture. To quote the great man himself; “my past his history, my future is a mystery.”
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.