Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Mike Tyson, the real 'Raging Bull'

In "Tyson," director James Toback takes us inside the mind of the former heavyweight champ. It's not a pleasant place to be.

I saw the movie before Tyson lost his 4-year-old daughter to an accident involving a treadmill. I don't know how I would have reacted to the movie had I seen it after this horrible incident. Would Tyson have seemed even more tragic? Would recent news further heighten the sense of pathos that surrounds the former champ. I don't know. All I know is that Tyson is not a guy who needed more pain in his life, and when I read about his daughter, my heart sank.

How you react to Toback's documentary -- which consists of a Mike Tyson monologue, footage from his bouts and additional material -- depends on whether you find Tyson interesting or overbearing or a combination of both. The Tyson we meet can be both self-aware and brutal, and his thoughts -- presented as he sits on a sofa in his California home -- range from insightful to truculent. In a weird way, watching "Tyson" is like being in the ring with him: He keeps coming at you. His observations have a relentless quality, so much so that after awhile you only can imagine what life might be like for Tyson. He lives inside his head all the time. We're just visiting.

So who is this guy? Tyson tells us that he was a frightened kid who learned that he couldn't stand to be physically abused by neighborhood toughs. He responded by getting tougher than anyone else. He dealt drugs. He got sent away. While in juvenile detention, he came to the attention of manager Cus D'Amato, who turned him into a fighter. Tyson found himself and then got lost again when D'Amato died. He became heavyweight champ at the age of 20. Tyson married Robin Givens. They divorced. Much later, he was tried and convicted for rape. He went to jail. He came to view sex as synonymous with power. He bit off part of Evander Holyfield's ear in a fight that took place late in his career. He's a clenched fist of a man, driven by furies that are never far from view.

At 43, Tyson no longer boxes. He can seem emotionally vulnerable, but half the time we don't know what to make of him. It's as if Tyson's constantly fighting a war within, and even he doesn't know who's going to win. Is it possible, as Tyson says, that his entire life has been a response to his fear of being bullied when he was a kid in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn?

Tyson claims innocence when it comes to his rape conviction. He describes himself as an extremist, a man who doesn't know how to live in the middle. In his prime, Tyson fought like an extremist. He would begin by looking at his opponent, sending out beams of hostility from his eyes. If the other guy blinked, Tyson knew that he'd win, even before the first punch was thrown. Like many young people who attain sudden celebrity, Tyson was ill equipped to handle it.

To this day, you can't be entirely sure that Tyson knows how to control himself. The mixture of danger and self-awareness, at minimum, proves fascinating. We wind up with an unfiltered look at a man who fought his way to the top, but hasn't always been able to conquer his own demons.

I could have done without some of Toback's visual gimmickry: split screens, etc. But in the end, Tyson overpowers everything else. It's the force of his rant that stays with you. And yet, there's something inconclusive about "Tyson," perhaps the feeling Tyson's moments of calm proceed some inevitable storm. He has lost the heavyweight title. He has lost his freedom. And now, he's suffered the worst loss of all, his daughter. No matter what else you feel about Mike Tyson, that's one loss no one would wish on him.

If you live in Denver, you may interested to know Carmello Anthony's company Krossover Productions was involved in the making of "Tyson." Anthony is listed as one of the film's executive producers. Next up for Krossover, a bio-pic about baseball star Roberto Clemente. For more on Anthony and his film exploits, check out this ESPN story.

"Tyson" opens in Denver Friday.

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