Tyson Delivers a Powerful Blow; Fighting is Down for the Count
The face of Mike Tyson stares out from the screen like a sentry—intent, sober, watchful. The camera sits close, the framing is tight, and as we lock eyes with the former heavyweight champ who could shatter an opponent's confidence with little more than a glance, he seems to look past us into some unfathomable void. "The first question we ask is, 'Who am I?' " says the voice—unmistakable, unusually soft and high for a man—at the start of Tyson. It is a question Tyson asks of himself many more times over the following 90 minutes, although the closest thing to an answer comes relatively early, in an excerpt from an interview given by the boxer when he was still a teenage phenom on the rise: "Nobody really knows Mike Tyson." Nobody, including Mike Tyson himself.
Directed by James Toback, who previously cast Tyson in his dramatic features Black and White and When Will I Be Loved, Tyson isn't a traditional documentary portrait so much as a feature-length interview, in which the retired boxer, save for a sprinkling of archival footage and a montage of his famous fights, remains front and center for the entire running time. The only talking head is his own, albeit one that speaks in multiple, sometimes self-contradictory voices. In recent nonfiction cinema, the film's closest precedents are the Austrian-made Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary and Errol Morris's Robert McNamara tête-à-tête, The Fog of War. But whereas the former film had the feeling of a confession and the latter of an interrogation, Tyson is more like a particularly riveting therapy session, with Tyson as both analyst and patient.
The movie covers a lot of ground, some of it familiar—Tyson's early years as a bullied, fatherless youth on the tough streets of Brownsville, Brooklyn; the petty criminality that landed him in an upstate New York juvenile facility; the redemption that he found in the person of septuagenarian boxing trainer Cus D'Amato—but much of it not. Even boxing fans who feel they know everything there is to know about Tyson may be surprised by the bracing candor with which he dissects his desire to fight ("I was afraid of being that way again . . . of being physically humiliated in the street again"), his 1992 rape conviction on charges brought by Miss Black America contestant Desiree Washington ("that wretched swine of a woman"), and the 1997 Evander Holyfield bout that ended with part of Holyfield's ear on the canvas ("I was totally insane at that moment"). Often, Tyson is most revealing when he doesn't intend to be, as when he refers to the $14 million settlement he received from his 2004 lawsuit against Don King as "a small amount of money." Likewise, Toback's film is as absorbing for what it addresses directly as for its underlying and irresolvable questions of race, sexuality, and violence in American society.
In 1989's The Big Bang, his sole previous nonfiction film, Toback was frequently on camera asking his subjects about the origins of the universe and the nature of existence. In Tyson—a movie about a cosmos of one—Toback smartly gets out of the way of his powerhouse subject in a manner that many a more seasoned documentarian would have been too predetermined to do. Probably, Tyson did not require much prompting—he has the air of a man eager to unburden himself. What he did need—what Tyson would have been unthinkable without—was someone he could talk to; a fellow traveler on the path of obsession and desire who could wear down the calluses Tyson has built up over decades spent as a mass-media punching bag; someone willing to take Mike Tyson explicitly on his own terms.
Those terms are constantly in flux, for Tyson is nothing if not a Heisenbergian particle, like all the surrogate Bob Dylans of I'm Not There rolled into one—and Toback is much too smart to pretend to give us "the Mike Tyson we never knew" or any similarly reductive postulation. Toback doesn't come to lionize or to demonize, to goad his subject into a tearful breakdown (though Tyson does cry) or climactic Frost/Nixon apologia, or even to suggest that Tyson has anything to apologize for in the first place. Instead, he gives us Iron Mike in all his monolithic multitudes and allows us, for a brief moment, to peer alongside him into the existential abyss.
No cosmic questions weigh upon Fighting, the second film by director Dito Montiel, whose 2006 debut, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, was the sort of crude but fascinating object you might find in an exhibition of naïf art. Adapted by Montiel—a former hardcore punk musician—from his autobiographical novel about his teenage delinquency on the streets of Astoria, that movie was a ragged, misshapen mess, but its guttural power was undeniable. It was as if the movie had been kicking around violently in Montiel's head for decades. Fighting feels like it's been kicking around somewhere for a while, too—in the office of a studio development executive eager to find more Fast and the Furious–style catnip for the urban adrenaline-junkie crowd.
Like the Furious franchise, Fighting purports to offer us an insider's view of an illicit underground subculture. Here, it's the world of bare-knuckles brawling, whose competitors fight not out of emasculated rage against an overly commodified society like the angry young men of Fight Club, but simply because they enjoy it, or because there's money to be made. The latter is the impetus for Shawn MacArthur (Saints alum Channing Tatum), a romanticized vision of the cornpone rube trying to make it in the big city who, in one of the more fanciful notions here, is first shown eking out his fleabag-motel existence by selling counterfeit Harry Potter books on a Rockefeller Center sidewalk.
Never mind that you've never seen anyone as chiseled and freshly scrubbed as Tatum hocking black-market goods on the streets of Manhattan: Where Saints carried such a vivid sense of place that you felt as if Montiel knew every one of those humid Astoria alleyways firsthand, Fighting seems to unfold in a New York learned primarily from other movies—specifically those of the pre-Giuliani grindhouse era—no matter that the setting is present-day. When Shawn, whose pugilistic skills are spotted early on by a ticket-scalper-cum-fight-promoter (Terrence Howard), does battle against one Asian challenger, the bout takes place in a gaudy, orientalized hotel room (complete with transsexual hostesses) that seems on loan from Year of the Dragon.
Montiel seems incapable of making an ordinary bad movie—he's too much of a willful eccentric, with a casual disregard for things like backstory, character development, and narrative tension and a high indulgence for eccentric performers like Howard (here playing an unholy cross between Ratso Rizzo and Mr. Miyagi) and Tatum (who may be the most sullen and inexpressive leading man this side of Josh Hartnett). If Montiel was going to fail, it was bound to be spectacular, and Fighting bears that out in spades. The discursive style that managed to suit Saints is all wrong for a movie that needs the stripped-down engine of an American International Pictures quickie. For most of Fighting, Montiel denies us such basic information as how long Shawn has been in New York and why he came there. This may also be the first movie about underground fighting in which there isn't so much as a single scene of the police busting up a brawl—or anyone even worrying that the police might bust up a brawl—and the only movie about fighting of any kind without so much as a single training sequence.
There's no shortage of other clichés, from the former high school rival against whom Shawn ultimately has to prove himself to the inevitable fight-fixing quandary, but Montiel is too high-minded to really embrace any of them, and the movie never works up a pulpy head of steam. It's like an exploitation movie that thinks it's an art movie, only there's no art to be found.
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