James Toback’s documentary should be subtitled Mike on Mike
: It’s 90 minutes of a recently interviewed Tyson speaking directly to the camera — a single-minded perspective that proves both frustrating and fascinatingly intimate. Rambling, emotional and often surprisingly articulate, Tyson ruminates on everything from his troubled childhood and meteoric rise as a boxer to his various legal troubles and general outrageous behavior. Toback often splits the screen to give us multiple talking heads (all of them Tyson’s) in an obvious attempt to articulate his subject’s unstable, dual nature. Worse, the director periodically shows a melancholic Tyson walking along the beach at sunset as he talks about his sexual proclivities with women (“I want to ravish them completely”) and a childhood immersed in the “art of skullduggery.” Toback also mixes in archival footage from a variety of sources (the boxing footage of prime-era Tyson remains electrifying), the most curious of which is a joint interview with a young Tyson and trainer/mentor Cuss D’Amato, whose death devastated the vulnerable teenager one year before he would win the heavyweight title in 1986.
Tyson would never trust anyone again … with the possible exception of Toback — their friendship goes back more than 20 years. Tyson has appeared as an actor in two of the director’s nine previous fictional works, a highly personal collection of films — from still-potent debut Fingers (1978) to little-seen When Will I Be Loved (2004) — that are simultaneously provocative, probing and self-indulgent. The two are perfect for each other: hyper-masculine men fueled by fear and loathing. Toback’s documentary is sure to infuriate those looking for balance (Tyson again proclaims his innocence despite being convicted of rape in 1993), but the filmmaker lets Mike be Mike, a decision that yields a unique, unblinkingly candid portrait of a man in all his contradictory glory. Grade: B