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Filmmaker James Toback uses his longtime friendship with controversial boxing legend Mike Tyson to get the heavyweight to sit down and talk with open, unfiltered frankness about his life and career in and out of the ring. Incorporating lots of vintage boxing footage and other archival materials, the main thrust of this compelling documentary is Tyson himself, interviewed in various settings and seemingly willing to talk about everything, including his tattered childhood, his early fights, his mentors, his detractors, his sexual prowess, his brief marriage to Robin Givens, his notorious encounter with Evander Holyfield's ear and so much more. Only the rape charge that resulted in a three-year prison stay — an issue about which he's clearly still in denial — seems to make Tyson angry. What ultimately emerges is a full-bodied portrait of a man who may be more complex and human than we ever could have imagined.


Although there are interviews with others, this is Tyson's show and on the subject he knows best — himself — he's utterly fascinating. The former heavyweight champ brings a lot of baggage and contradictory revelations to the table and Toback, an acclaimed screenwriter (Bugsy, Fingers) and director, expertly shapes this story into a cohesive feature that's alternately surprising, informative, amusing and frustrating — all courtesy of the man in the hot seat, Mike Tyson.


Toback, who has only made one previous documentary (1990's The Big Bang), may have found his filmmaking niche. With Tyson, he proves adept at getting the most out of a very complicated man, weaving it all into a compelling portrait with the skill of a true craftsman. It's the unexpected candor and different colors we get from Tyson that make this effort all worthwhile. While sports fans will surely love it, the film's appeal goes beyond that. This is a richly human story in the end, warts and all.


Toback's film fails just once when he gets stonewalled by Tyson on the single most explosive element of his story, the rape conviction and subsequent three-year prison term. The director doesn't seem able to explore it in much depth, burning a hole in an otherwise admirable picture of a man not easy to categorize.


It's hard to whittle this film's many highlights down, but easily the most touching moment comes as an emotional Tyson talks about his close relationship with his mentor, trainer and father figure, Cus D'Amato. D'Amato died in 1985, just a year before Mike became the youngest boxer ever to win the heavyweight championship. You have to wonder how the wise and influential D'Amato might have changed the course of Tyson's checkered career if he hadn't passed away so early on.


This film is a must even if you have to watch it on your key ring.



Bottom Line rated this film 3 1/2 stars.