In Tyson, the former heavyweight champion looks at his own life in and out of the ring with a candor and eloquence that is by turns shocking, funny, hair-raising and never less than brutally honest. In other words, TYSON explores"¦Tyson.

James Toback’s film portrait ranges from Tyson's earliest memories of growing up on the meanest streets of Brooklyn through his entry into the world of boxing under the stewardship of his beloved trainer Cus D’Amato. It also covers his misadventures with Don King and his tortured marriage to Robin Givens, his rollercoaster ride through the funhouse of worldwide fame, his fortunes won and lost.

The gloves come off.

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "It's such a shallow world I am involved with and I can't take it no more." - Mike Tyson (, June 2005).

Hearing the lisping, high-pitched voice eminate from the hulking giant that is Mike Tyson is just one of the perplexing contradictions James Toback’s biographical documentary presents in its interpretation of one of the most enigmatic and controversial figures in sporting history.

Writer/director Toback has been fascinated with the dark side of fame and its influence on flawed personalities in much of his work. His most accessible output to date has been the Oscar-nominated script for the Barry Levinson-directed biopic, Bugsy (1991), which focussed on the starstruck rise to fame and inevitable fall from grace of gangster Bugsy Siegel. He was also drawn to the talent of Robert Downey Jr. at the height of the young actor’s struggle with drugs and fame’s public face – he cast Downey Jr. in The Pick-up Artist (1987), the woefully-underseen Two Girls And A Guy (1997) and the hip-hop mockumentary, Black and White (1999).

It was on the set of Black and White that Toback became friends with Mike Tyson. Cast in a minor role as himself and waxing philosophically about random subjects, Tyson developed an easy rapport with Toback which has led to this intriguing, honest dissection of the man’s life.

It is a film of two very distinctive halves. Tyson speaks directly to camera for a large portion of the film, firstly about his tough childhood and the career and personality-defining influence of trainer Cus D’Amato, who recognised the raw talent in Tyson when the young street thug looked to be falling in with the wrong crowd. These are the best moments of Toback’s film; Tyson recounts in a deeply moving manner the impact that D’Amato, who accepted him into his home and family, had on the directionless youth. Footage of a 20 year-old Tyson bearing the old man’s coffin is very touching; Toback’s camera lingers on the face of a tough guy bearing his heart.

The second half of the film chronicles Tyson’s descent into the vacuum of celebrity and his reaction to and explanation of the moments that would plague him for the rest of his life. The short, volatile marriage to actress Robyn Givens; the rape allegations made against him by Miss America contestant Desiree Washington; his relationship with infamous boxing promoter Don King. And, of course, the boxing: brutal clashes with monsters such as Buster Douglas, Lennox Lewis and, most (in)famously, Evander Holyfield.

Tyson’s take on the Holyfield ear-chomping incident is indicative of the boxing-ring creed by which he lives. Once Holyfield used his superior height to not once, but twice head-butt Tyson, the Champ instigated the law of the street. Despite the very explicit rules forbidding biting, Tyson did it twice, secure in the belief that because Holyfield had taken the fight to the gutter, he could too. Man-on-man, it’s what he would’ve done back home in the 'hood.

Toback knows Mike Tyson’s flaws all too well. He knows that some of the audience will see Tyson as a sad, silly, immature thug, cursed with no education and a life that is filtered through a fame defined by brutality. And Toback is happy for you to think that. But he also wants us to see the man that he knows – a man that had the talent to be the greatest in his field but who was not prepared for the pounding that modern society and its henchman, the media, dished out to him.

Boxing fans will be thrilled by Toback’s film, filled as it is with multi-camera angles and behind-the-scenes footage of some of the greatest fights in the sports history. Lovers of quality documentaries will also appreciate the insight Toback brings to his film and his subject. But it is Tyson’s Tyson; a portrait by the man of the man who, in his autumn years, revels in the opportunity to finally have a say on a life created by others and beyond his capacity for control.


1 hour 27 min
In Cinemas 06 August 2009,