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Fighting the Raging Bull

Tyson (2009)

Larry McConkey/Sony Pictures Classics

Love him or hate him – and at this point most people probably opt for the latter – there’s no doubting the imprint Mike Tyson has left on the past two-and-a-half decades of popular culture. From his dominant run as undisputed heavyweight champion in the 1980s to the precipitous fall from grace surrounding his rape conviction and his resurrection as an ear-biting, heart-munching sideshow, he’s never been far from the spotlight.

That profound link between Mr. Tyson’s public identity and the zeitgeist at large makes him a worthy subject for a documentary, but only one made by a filmmaker willing to resist hagiography and ask the tough questions. James Toback has done that with “Tyson,” a film that presents the entire arc of Mr. Tyson’s life in his own words, without the armchair psychological diagnoses of talking head experts. Whatever the reason – probably their longstanding personal relationship – Mr. Tyson deeply trusts Mr. Toback and opens up about his failings as honestly as could ever be expected.

Meticulously narrated by Mr. Tyson himself, seen in close-up in his home or standing at the Pacific Ocean’s edge with his eyes affixed to the horizon, the picture resurrects the familiar story. It begins amid the crumbling homes and debris covered streets of Brownsville, Brooklyn circa the 1970s, where Mr. Tyson spent his aimless, crime-ridden youth. He pays earnest, heartfelt tribute to Cus D’Amato, his trainer, savior and all-around father figure. He joyfully takes us through the champion years, resurrecting the champ’s classic hunger and energy to describe the way he’d prepare for his fights. Later, he angrily decries his rape conviction and rather mournfully recalls the diminished fighter he became after leaving prison.

The film comes across as a poignant valedictory address, a chronicle of the extraordinary arc of a life that only recently reached its 40th year. Mr. Toback enhances the impact of the private journey on which Tyson takes us with split screens and stock footage. These present, in the fullest possible sense, the tragedy of a man blessed with the body of a God and the ability to taste greatness before all too fleetingly flaming out. The film depicts an individual stricken with a troubled soul spurred along by a lifelong absence of moral guidance and an inability to handle the vagaries of fame.

The movie won’t make you like Mr. Tyson. He still seems resistant to remorse, spectacularly misogynistic and prone to fits of terrifying anger. But it will make you understand the source of that rage we’ve all seen on far too many public stages. “Tyson” simultaneously functions as a work of great empathy and an important cultural document, a film boosted by the combination of Mr. Toback’s willingness to let Mr. Tyson reclaim his public persona and his refusal to shy away from the controversy that’s enveloped it.


Opened on April 24 in New York and on March 27 in Britain.

Directed by James Toback; director of photography, Larry McConkey; edited by Aaron Yanes; music by Salaam Remi, with the song “Legendary” by Nas; produced by Mr. Toback and Damon Bingham; released by Sony Pictures Classics (united States) and Revolver Entertainment (Britain). Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A.


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