Friday, April 10, 2009

James Toback's Tyson

Infamy is the greatest form of flattery. While sports purists and historians relish debating the importance of statistics and events often invoking the cultural impact of their respective eras, it's the brand of persona that trumps accomplishment; lionizing the legend over unrealized promise. More than any other sport, the 'sweet science' depends and thrives upon the brand of persona, and its precipitous decline within the mainstream consciousness reflects this weakness. Director James Toback examines boxing's last most notable and polarizing figure in Tyson.

Using Mike Tyson as the sole voice and eyes of his documentary, Toback forgoes any attempts at objectivity and instead allows Tyson to reveal himself today: somber, regretful and surprisingly cogent. Though the omission of other perspectives creates an uneven feeling, it succeeds in accomplishing its diary-like form. It may not be the most definitive, in-depth take on the Mike Tyson story, but Toback's Tyson is as engaging as it is complicated.

For the most part, the film follows the conventional rise and fall arc, with old videos and photos of past fights and indiscretions interspersed with Tyson's running commentary. Rising from the poverty and crime of Brooklyn to finding direction and meaning under the tutelage of trainer Cus D'Amato, Tyson's beginnings read like a conventional hard-luck-turned-good sports story with one caveat: the audacity of greatness. Through seemingly unknowing power and ability, Tyson's infamy builds because of the greatness he stumbles upon. He fought in an effort to hide weakness and by fighting found celebrity that ultimately unveiled and exacerbated the weakness.

As our narrator, Tyson speaks like a remorseful child still failing to grasp the potential of greatness squandered, but also very conscious of the punchline persona he's become defined by. There are rare moments of anger (refuting his rape conviction but complicit with other sins), light unintentional comedic moments (discussions of sex and women being a through line), and sentimental moments with family (evoking images of Stallone's content retired warrior in Rocky Balboa).

It's a reclamation project by all accounts, and Toback doesn't shy away from the reality that Tyson is as much about revealing another side of a celebrity pariah as it is about reinventing and reintroducing the brand name of Mike Tyson. Toback aims to put his friend in as flatteringly truthful a light as possible, shooting him in the calm, white washed tones of a Miami mansion, walking along a beach at sunset while reciting poetry (in an unintentionally laughable Jack Handey-esque manner) and using heavy handed overlapping split screen boxes to reflect "the complicated madness" inside the man.

In prior films like Black and White and Two Girls and a Guy, Toback showed a penchant for compelling subjects with a sometimes uneven dosage of subtlety. Yet in Tyson, a stripped down simplicity succeeds in making the fallen champ all the more watchable. The film may have been able to make plausible the prospect of making him a sympathetic figure, but one can't help leaving with something more.

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