James Toback

Sony Pictures Classics

Mike Tyson, Cus D'Amato, Robin Givens, Don King, Desiree Washington

TYSON: USA 2008, 35mm, color, English, R, 90 min


WINNER: 2008 Cannes Film Festival: Regard Knockout Award

Some kids beat him up once and he couldn't stop them. Another kid killed one of his homing pigeons, and he fell upon him with fury. And that is the back story of Mike Tyson, a boxer known as the Baddest Man on the Planet. When he went into the ring, he was proving he would never be humiliated again and getting revenge for a pigeon he loved. I believe it really is that simple. There is no rage like that of a child, hurt unjustly, the victim of a bully.

James Toback's TYSON is a documentary with no pretense of objectivity. Here is Mike Tyson's story in his own words, and it is surprisingly persuasive. He speaks openly and with apparent honesty about a lifetime during which, he believes, he was often misunderstood. From a broken family, he was in trouble at a tender age and always felt vulnerable; his childhood self is still echoed in his lisp, as high-pitched as a child's. It's as if the victim of big kids is still speaking to us from within the intimidating form of perhaps the most punishing heavyweight champion of them all.

Mike Tyson comes across here as reflective, contrite, more sinned against than sinning. He can be charming. He can be funny. You can see why Toback, himself a man of extremes, has been a friend for 20 years. The film contains a great deal of fight footage, of Tyson hammering one opponent after another. We also see a TV interview, infamous at the time, of his ex-wife Robin Givens describing him as abusive and manic-depressive.

Tyson freely admits he has mistreated women and says he regrets it. But he denies the rape charge brought against him by Desiree Washington, which led to his conviction and three years in jail. "She was a swine," he says. He also has no use for boxing promoter Don King, "a slimy reptilian [bleeper]." His shining hero is his legendary trainer Cus D'Amato, the man who polished the diamond in the rough from his early teens and died a year before Tyson's first heavyweight crown.

What Toback offered Tyson was the opportunity to vindicate himself. There is no effort to show "both sides," but in fact the case against Tyson is already well known, and what is unexpected about TYSON is that afterward we feel sympathy for the man, and more for the child inside. rogerebert