Tyson (2008)

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Whatever you think of Mike Tyson, you’ll leave this film admiring his brutal honesty.

Tyson is a well-rounded insight into a very complicated man. It captures the excitement of Mike’s 20 year career, stylishly and energetically showcasing many of Tyson’s devastating fights while also sensitively exploring Mike’s life before, during and after his career. The film charts both his successes and failures, including his dominance of 1985 – 1990, his disastrous marriage to Robin Givens, his rape charge (which he vehemently denies), and his controversial losses to Evander Holyfield.

The majority of the film’s 86 minutes comprise a series of interviews with Tyson. He speaks of how his rough childhood affected him, most notably his discovery that violence was the only form of defence for a scared young boy in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Tyson elaborates on his ghetto adolescence of theft and drugs before his placement in a borstal, where he was eventually taken under the wing of legendary trainer Cus D’Amato.

Tyson had been conditioned by the poverty, drugs and general brutality of New York, this pugnacious young man wasn’t going to allow anyone to tame him. This changed when he met D’Amato, he was the first person in his life who believed in him, the first person to inspire him and invest in his future. Mike is still brought to tears when speaking of his beloved mentor.

After years of discipline and intense training, the genetically gifted Tyson had been moulded into an 218lb monster, a superb heavyweight contender at just 18 years of age. Sadly, Cus died before he won his first title in 1986.

I can imagine some will criticise the film’s depiction of its leading man. Indeed, the film portrays Mike sympathetically, his story is told from only his perspective; however this bias is balanced, or perhaps even tipped in the opposite direction, by Tyson’s remarkable honesty. Despite his past behaviour, Mike being the first to acknowledge it, there’s part of you that can’t help but pity him. He has led a life of confusion and anger, with interference from his numerous demons, one of which being Don King.

It is his honesty that makes me, like many others, doubtful of his rape conviction in 1992. Considering how Tyson talks so freely and candidly about his chequered past of hedonism and violence, I doubt that he would repeatedly lie about Washington (who had several years prior allegedly made a false accusation of rape against fellow student Wayne Walker.) He has no interest in concealing his past or improving his reputation, he seems to only want to tell the truth, which I suppose could be a method of reputation management. In reference to the Washington case, the wise Frank Bruno once said: ‘You don’t go to someone’s hotel room at 1am to play chess.’   

Tyson’s narration is at times embarrassing, particularly when he talks about sex, detailing how he likes to ‘dominate’ his women as if they’re prey (corroboration for Washington’s defence, perhaps.) He also tells an anecdote of how he ‘performed fellatio’ on a woman, I’m sure he has since realised he meant ‘cunnilingus’. This malapropism is largely an isolated incident however, as Mike is a great lover of words, he’s far more articulate than many would think. Tyson brilliantly combines high-register English with African-American vernacular, on multiple occasions he describes things in the most emphatic of ways, such as his verdict on the infamous boxing promoter Don King – ‘He’s just a wretched, slimy, reptilian motherfucker… he’s ruthless, he’s deplorable… he doesn’t know how to love anybody.’ 

No matter what one thinks of him, there is no denying that Mike Tyson is truly unique and not what one expects; he’s much more insightful than people give him credit for. This is why I advise anyone, particularly those who disregard Tyson, to watch this eye-opener, it won’t necessarily change your opinion of the man, but I think you will appreciate his origins and admire his honesty.

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Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

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A somewhat idealised account of alcoholism, but still a thoroughly downbeat one.

Don’t get me wrong, this film is thoroughly downbeat, however I feel alcoholism is still somewhat sugar coated. The likelihood of Ben Sanderson (Nicolas Cage) finding a woman as attractive and utterly devoted as Sera (Elizabeth Shue) is slim. It’s possible of course, their bond is understandable; they’re both people in grave need of care, one being a severe addict and the other being a victim on the fringe of society. Also, the crucial element that makes the relationship and indeed the film work is its platonicism.

Nevertheless, I thought that ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ is a somewhat idealised account of dire alcoholism. This really struck me in an erotically charged scene in which the pair kiss and caress each other with the help of a large bottle of liquor – it’s an image that would exist merely in the dreams of most addicts. However, the engaging central romance certainly beats 2 hours of a more ordinary dive into alcoholism, which would be a film of roughly two sets: a pub and a bedroom stained with urine, excrement, blood and vomit.

A film of this nature depends on a good central performance, and it gets one. Cage is depressingly real and effective as Ben. I am a fan of many of Cage’s unhinged roles, however ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ is one the films that proves that when he moderates his idiosyncratic lunacy, he can produce genuinely good, measured performances.

The film is scored with smooth, melancholic jazz tracks and the narrative is constructed by a tautly composed prologue which gives a brief insight into Ben’s life before he left for Las Vegas. This includes a brilliant scene of Ben ridding himself of his personal and professional existence to the sound of Michael McDonald’s energetic ‘Lonely Teardrops’. It’s a scene of mixed emotions, although he is condemning himself, it is also an act of liberation. Not much detail is given about his life in the prologue, however it is clear that he was a popular and successful family man. When he is fired, his boss says with a touching sincerity ‘we enjoyed having you around here, but you know how it is’, giving him a cheque which Ben describes as ‘too generous’. This depth given to Cage’s character makes his decline all the more tragic.

‘Leaving Las Vegas’ is dark, seedy and tragic. Recommended.

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