Directed by James Toback. (2009, R, 90 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., May 29, 2009
Professional boxing fascinates and enthralls like no other sport. It always has. From London-born Queensbury Rules to the nasal whine of Howard Cosell and the 20th century's greatest bouts and fighters, boxing speaks to the primal, reptilian hindquarters of the human psyche. If you want blood, you've got it. Simultaneously and bizarrely, the fighters and the fight became known, via the largesse of a byzantine network of managers, promoters, journalists, the “sweet science." But there was never anything sweet about Brooklyn-born brawler "Iron" Mike Tyson, whose ferocious fisticuffs and unmatched ability to psyche out his opponents were like some insane riff on Mandingo meets Piranha. In the ring, he was flat-out terrifying, unshakable, a thunderstorm of pain, his lightning-fast limbs corded like banyan trees, his face a lumpy, horrifying mask of endless hate. But in the end, "Kid Dynamite," the WBA Heavyweight Champion of the World, blew himself up. It was – and remains – a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare, or at least Hollywood. Toback's riveting documentary is one for the books, too. With Tyson, the filmmaker, who is something of a maverick himself, traces Tyson's history from tubby Brooklyn hooligan and street-corner thug to his eventual, fateful alliance with legendary trainer Constantine "Cus" D'Amato (for you nonboxing types, think Burgess Meredith's Mickey to Stallone's Rocky) and beyond. D'Amato shepherded the big lug out of the reformatory and into the ring and then spent the rest of his life instilling both a sense of purpose and honing Tyson's will to power into a thing of ghastly beauty. But then the elderly Cus expired, and Tyson, slowly at first but with the unstoppable momentum of a freight train, went off the rails. You probably know the rest: drugs, booze, women (countless), three years in a federal pen on a rape conviction, and the career-ending chomping of Evander Holyfield's ear during the pair's rematch in 1997. It was all downhill from there, and just like his fighting style, it was anything but graceful. Toback, a longtime friend of the fighter, gets Tyson to open up all the way (beginning in what appears to be a pristine white hotel suite), and the end result is not one of revulsion but of pity. Sure, Tyson brought it all on himself – the frightening resolve he displayed in the ring was nowhere to be found once he stepped out of it – but sitting for Toback, recalling his life from cradle to near-grave while decked out in some unthreateningly down-tempo bling, the fighter comes across more tin man than iron man. Stylistically, Tobak scrambles the screen during the one-on-one interview segments; elswehere, he cuts to archival footage of Tyson's big moments, often with Tyson commenting in voiceover. The overall effect is akin to watching a mortally, morally wounded god reminiscing over the inexorable evaporation of his religion and attendant parishioners (and the news at press time of the accidental death of his 4-year-old daughter only underscores this effect). It's brutal to watch the bigger-they-are-the-harder-they-fall tragedy of this once-great heavyweight. In fact, it's enough to make you cry.