LITTLE ROCK There is a brilliant trailer for an almost brilliant 1995 science fiction film, Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days, which features a scruffy Ralph Fiennes as the "magic man," a pitchman for a kind of illicit virtual reality, who offers us vicarious experiences direct from "the cerebral cortex." We can experience anything, he tells us; we can be in anyone's head.
Maybe it goes without saying there are a lot of scary heads you might not want to get inside, such as Mike Tyson's torture chamber of a mind. In James Toback's documentary Tyson, we get dragged into this dark morass. It's not exactly a pleasant trip, but if you stick it out you'll emerge with, if not a better understanding of what makes Tyson run, at least a deeper appreciation for the relative sanity of your own circumstances.
Toback, who has been a friend of Tyson's since the boxer was 19 years old and has cast him in a couple of memorable cameos in feature films, basically just sets up his camera and lets the fighter talk. While this technique - uncluttered by any feints toward objectivity or journalistic distance - might prove disastrous with the typical image-conscious media celebrity, Tyson seemingly has no filter on his stream-of-consciousness spew. The result is an intimate portrait of a man in pain that is by turns fascinating, harrowing and difficult to watch.
His own dime store analysis of the beast is that he has never been able to trust anyone other than Cus D'Amato - the trainer who took Tyson in when he was a young juvenile delinquent off the means streets of Brownsville,Brooklyn and eventually became his legal guardian. Yet he also admits that he considered robbing D'Amato, who tutored him not just in the ring but in the lore of the sport.
Tyson roams freely over his career - his meteoric rise to the undisputed heavyweight champion, his humbling loss to 42-to-1 underdog Buster Douglas, his shameful biting of Evander Holyfield - and his tabloid exploits without indulging in self pity or rationalization.
Toback's chief editorial device is the highly effective use of split-screens and cross-faded sound to give us a sense of the competing voices in Tyson's head. There's plenty of archival footage of his fi ghts - I'd forgotten how terrifyingly quick Tyson's hands were - as well as clips from Tyson's well-documented tabloid tribulations, such as the disastrous joint interview with then-wife Robin Givens, conducted by Barbara Walters.
While I've heard the fi lm described as a one-sided brief for Tyson, the truth is he makes a lot of admissions against his own interests. It's more of a confession than an explanation - and when Tyson descends into vociferous ugliness (he calls Desiree Washington, the beauty queen who sent him to prison for rape in 1992, a "wretched swine of a woman"), he's thoroughly repellent.
Yet if Tyson never manages to charm us, there are other times when he comes off as touchingly naive. He's uncommonly empathetic to those who might think him a monster. It seems he often sometimes thinks of himself the same way.
We come away from the movie pitying the intelligent, recognizably human creature imprisoned in the brute. The lights come up and we're released - he has to live in that dangerous mind.
Tyson88Cast: Mike Tyson Director: James Toback Rating: R, for language and boxing violence Running time: 90 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 37 on 07/24/2009