MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Tyson’

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Boxing’s complicated nature — the contrast between its brutality and its beauty — has long inspired some of the best sportswriting, and it continues to make for a fascinating documentary subject. Consider, for example, the recent documentary on the rubber bout between Joe Frazier and Muhammed Ali, “Thriller in Manila,” another fine entry in the genre, which encapsulates the personalities and the conflicts in play while placing their battle in a broader cultural context.

But what happens when you get beyond the fights, beyond the ring and the refs and the rest? What happens when you put the myths aside and look squarely at one of the men inhabiting the ring?

You get James Toback’s “Tyson.”

Utterly absorbing and fascinating, “Tyson” captivates viewers for its 90 minutes with a power that is uncommon for the documentary genre.

Much of the credit goes to the subject himself. Mike Tyson is an endlessly intriguing individual, simultaneously one of the most fearsome men of the late 20th century and also a reservoir of squandered talent. As the documentary progresses, it becomes obvious that his inner demons fueled both his fearsomeness and self-destruction.

Some will complain — indeed, some already have — that “Tyson” is an exercise in redemption for a man who doesn’t deserve to be redeemed: A rapist and a thug and a disgrace to his sport doesn’t warrant being treated with kid gloves, they argue. Those people are missing the point.

“Tyson” doesn’t really take a stand one way or the other about its protagonist’s transgressions. It’s not a documentary that presents evidence and makes a case. Instead, Mr. Toback simply lets us see the world through Tyson’s eyes. You’re not asked to make a value judgment one way or the other; rather, you’re given an unfiltered glimpse into the mind of a person who has no filter himself.

The documentary is shot simply, with two cameras focused squarely on the boxer. Neither camera ever sets its sights on the questioner, Mr. Toback — indeed, we never even hear his questions. The screen is entirely consumed by Tyson’s tattooed visage. The only time the scene shifts is when Mr. Toback cuts to vintage fight footage and old network television interviews with Tyson.

The well of disgust he harbors for those he feels have wronged him (like former promoter Don King and the woman who accused him of rape) is stunning. His expressions of hate are almost lyrical — he calls Mr. King a “wretched, slimy, reptilian” person — and reminds us of one of the reasons he was such a powerful figure. Although not as quick a wit as Ali, Tyson’s dual barrages of powerful fists and biting verbiage — along with his frightening unpredictability — made him an intimidating foe.

They also make him a fascinating subject. Anyone interested in “Iron Mike” has to check out this compelling documentary.

★★★½

TITLE: “Tyson”

RATING: R (language, including sexual references)

CREDITS: Directed by James Toback

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes

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