James Toback’s friendship with Mike Tyson first surfaced publicly when in 1999 the former heavyweight champion of the world made an unintentionally hilarious cameo in the director’s 1999 race drama Black and White. This appearance came a long time after Iron Mike terrorised the world by becoming the youngest heavyweight champ in history and a little while after Tyson had fallen far from grace. On his rap sheet is his conviction for raping Desiree Washington, his misguided marriage to actress Robin Givens and his attempt to turn boxing rival Evander Holyfield’s ear into a gourmet dish. The appearance in Black and White was clearly an attempt by Toback to try and help out his disgraced friend and the same can be said of this documentary, in which Tyson, who continues to have run-ins with the law, is given free reign to talk subjectively and without contradictory evidence about his career.
Now, here’s the rub, Toback is a formidable filmmaker who started his directing career with the excellent drama Fingers (starring Harvey Keitel, remade in 2005 as The Beat That My Heart Skipped) and Tyson, for all his faults, is a fascinating, bewildering character, so it’s hardly a surprise that this documentary is a winner. The knockout punches are delivered by Toback’s incredible access, supreme editing choices and ability to let Tyson talk himself into a cul-de-sac. There is no need to try and hang Tyson, the pugilist does a brilliant job of doing that for himself. The boxer is clearly a troubled man and the years operating between the ropes have taken their toll. He has many regrets, most of them revolving around being caught up in the trappings of fame when he should have been training. This is a man who realises he had the chance to be the greatest boxer that ever lived and blew it. While there is some remorse shown over his marriage to Givens and constant womanising, he still has nothing but contempt for his rape victim and he continues to maintain his innocence. Toback takes his lead from Godard in his editing choices and Mike Figgis’s Timecode in his multi-screen views. It’s a lesson in how to portray difficult subjects.