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Tyson | Review

Too close for un-Comfort: Toback throws Soft Punches at Former Champ

When considering that a friendship pre-existed between the director and his subject, perhaps it was wishful thinking to believe that a documentary on one of sports history’s most controversial figures would actually make for absorbing material. James Toback gave the infamous boxer a pair of feature film walk on set roles, but viewers hoping that the docu filmmaker peels away the layers of his docu subject will find a golden opportunity wasted. A ninety minute public relations piece, Tyson sees Toback neglect to illuminate his own fascination with Mike Tyson, and in the same measure, fails to deliver the complex character and psychological study of a man who managed to climb himself to the top and live the rags to riches story not once, but twice, but also chomped down of the ear on an opponent and spent some time in the pen for rape charges.

Carrying all the ferociousness of a baby cub, the doc much like its subject, is a little awkward in design. Basking in a series of overlapping images of the former champ with toes in the sand shots with blistering sun in the backdrop, Toback literally frames the tattooed Tyson in a positive light and the format doesn’t do too much to contest what many will see as a brute turned a little soft. Apart from a wealth of inside and outside of the ring sound bytes, there is only one person who does all the speaking in this talking heads documentary. Let’s just say that objectivity wasn’t a priority for Toback.

Out of the tons of boxing footage and public fiascos, it is video footage of when the gold-capped tooth former boxer was a street kid and soon to be prodigy putting in many practice hours that reveals his first mentor – and perhaps only father figure. Unfortunately, Toback doesn’t have the insight or doesn’t have the heart to prod his friend for further details – this painful subject becomes a non-topic and therefore would better serve ESPN regulars than a docu film enthusiasts.

With a slew of innovative techniques and narrative forms used by contemporary doc filmmakers, it’s a shame that Toback’s only inclination towards the experimental is an ocean full of nauseating camera fades from a multi-camera set-up of close up head shots. It’s almost as if the filmmaker uses this to gauge a range of human emotions, and while Iron Mike does choke up on a couple of occasions and lashes out against what he feels are injustices (see unfortunate encounter with Don King and beauty pageant contestant), most of what comes out of his mouth is a mixture between a false sense of candidness, and at times self-serving affirmations. There is an admiring quality about a man who is willing to lay it all on the line – but here the competition is too tame – apart from an update on his financial and family status, with Tyson you’ll learn nothing new.

Originally reviewed at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival (Section: Un Certain Regard)

May 16th 2008.

90 Minutes

Rating 0 stars

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Eric Lavallée is the founder, CEO, editor-in-chief, film journalist, and critic at, established in 2000. A regular at Sundance, Cannes, and Venice, Eric holds a BFA in film studies from the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. In 2013, he served on the narrative competition jury at the SXSW Film Festival. He was an associate producer on Mark Jackson’s "This Teacher" (2018 LA Film Festival, 2018 BFI London). In 2022, he was a New Flesh Juror for Best First Feature at the Fantasia International Film Festival. Current top films for 2023 include The Zone of Interest (Glazer), Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell (Pham Thien An), Totem (Lila Avilés), La Chimera (Alice Rohrwacher), All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (Raven Jackson).

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