Mike Tyson would probably be the first person to tell you -- though he would have a lot of competition for that place in line, and have to at least elbow his way to the front -- that he is not a very nice guy. What seems to be the case, however, as made by the boxer in Tyson -- James Toback's cinematic portrait of the former heavyweight boxing champion -- is that he is the nicest guy that he knows how to be. Given where and how he was raised, and the lack of anyone with decent impulses in his early life save one (coach/trainer Cus D'Amato, who died too early), the fact that Tyson never killed anyone is probably a positive outcome of his life so far -- that, and the fact that he's still alive in 2009 and may have developed some of the awareness he needs to become a better person.
Toback's movie is a fairly challenging piece of work for anyone who isn't fascinated by either Tyson or boxing. He interviewed the former champion at length, in close visual detail that never lets us forget the destructive (and self-destructive) power in that body and psyche, and the movie skirts dangerously close to being 88 minutes of a talking head; however, Toback has structured the film, using split-screen and image-within-image to keep the film visually stimulating. It's there that Tyson's own youthful attributes help considerably, as he is such a fast-moving, powerful figure in the ring that those shots have at least the same allure as the best action movie sequences, with the added element of reality. This is real violence, albeit in the presumably controlled and regulated realm of the ring, that we're seeing, in a bigger frame and often more detail than most of us would normally want to avail ourselves of -- think of the brutality of the boxing scenes in Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull only real, not staged, and in color, which removes any sense of artfulness. If not spellbinding, it's at least fascinating, as one sees this extremely dangerous young man move into more controlled situations in the ring, only to destroy himself -- through a series of horrendous personal situations -- after D'Amato's death, as he moves through a series of exploitative situations (in which Don King may not even be the worst of the terrible manager/mentors he had). Toback's visuals work on two levels across most of the movie, conveying intimate personal observations by the older, presumably wiser Tyson while the scarily brutal (yet incredibly gifted) young boxer dominates the ring and another corner or half of the screen.
This all could be tiring if one weren't interested in the subject to start with, or if Tyson's human side didn't come through. The latter does, just enough, so that in the end one does feel sorry for the guy, to the degree that one can feel sympathy. He did throw away hundreds of millions of dollars, and lost his freedom for years and any dignity he might have found in the ring, and all because of terrible judgment on his part; nonetheless, he does come off as someone who, had he gotten a slightly fairer shake in life a little earlier, might well have been a more decent guy a lot earlier as well. He has gotten to his forties without killing anybody, and perhaps he's wise enough never to get to that point, and be more decent along the way, if he and circumstances permit it. The scenes of the boxer playing with his children tell us that the monster he seemed to be in the press in the 1990s was not the full picture. The final sequence of Toback's picture offers hope; on a religious or spiritual level, Toback's movie seems to express the notion, however deeply buried beneath the brutality and waste of Tyson's talent, that as long as a man, no matter how flawed and potentially violent, is alive and willing to try, he can do good, and perhaps (as Tyson seems to hint) even dare to savor the chance to be better than he was.