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Tyson (1995 HBO movie)

tn_tysonhboFrom Uli Edel, the visionary director of BODY OF EVIDENCE and THE LITTLE VAMPIRE, comes the 1995 made-for-cable biopic of Mike Tyson. HBO had made alot of money off the Mike Tyson fights, but then he lost the title and went to prison. I guess they made this movie to keep him in their library and maybe spark new interest for his comeback.

The most notable part of the movie is that Michael Jai White plays Tyson, in the role that brought him to somewhat-prominence. Before that he had a small part in TOXIC AVENGER 2-3 and was in a couple low-rent martial arts movies that I ought to track down one of these days, but this is what got him the bigger roles like, uh, Spawn.

You know, in the first UNDISPUTED the Ving Rhames character was clearly inspired by Mike Tyson. I think he was the current-champ, not the former-champ, but he was in prison on a rape charge that he denied. I’m not sure if I thought about it before that when Michael Jai White took over the character for part II it was the same guy who played Mike Tyson! This movie ends with him about to go to prison, so for a real weird experience I challenge somebody to watch TYSON, then UNDISPUTED, then UNDISPUTED II all in a row.

mp_tysonhboIt’s a tough job but I think White does good, somehow changing his gravelly, deep voice into the high pitched Mike Tyson lisp without it seeming laughable. He masters an open-mouthed, dead-eyed look that at times seems kind of blank for the star of a movie but at the same time is very Mike Tyson. The movie starts with him as a little kid shooting at people on a basketball court and ends with him about to go to prison for rape, and he never seems to really mature or learn anything during that time. He’s kind of like a big child who’s just really good at boxing.

George C. Scott plays Mike’s mentor Cus D’Amato, who yells at him for stealing his ice cream but also sides with him when the other people at the gym get pissed at him for dispappearing, getting into trouble and hitting on underage girls. It’s arguable whether this version of D’Amato is a good role model (he does get him off the streets, but also says he should leave school because it’s a bad influence). But this is the best part of the movie, the relationship between the growly old white man and the boyish, muscular punching machine.

Paul Winfield plays Don King as an over-the-top cartoonish supervillain – in other words, he underplays it. But it’s pretty good casting. Robin Givens (Kristen Wilson) is instantly hatable even before she’s supposed to be – talking to Mike on the phone the first time she keeps asking, “To whom am I speaking?” in a fake aristocratic accent. Again, almost too subtle for the real person.

Like any TV biopic it mostly plays as a runthrough of the famous events in the guy’s press bio. There’s even a montage with the newspaper headline “Respect For Tyson Grows and Grows” in order to communicate that in this point of the story respect for Tyson grows and grows. Whenever he’s on TV for a press conference or interview it seems to cut to his family or friends sitting around in a big group watching. That way when he just sits there while Robin tears him up in that Barbara Walters interview we get to see Malcolm Jamal Warner (who plays his best friend by the way) saying they must’ve drugged him. I learned from Wikipedia that there was an episode of THE COSBY SHOW called “Theo and the Older Woman” where the real Robin Givens was the older woman. I wonder how he felt about doing that scene?

Tyson mostly seems like a victim or at least passive witness to the events of his life. He has this talent but he doesn’t really know anything else and therefore people take advantage of him and push his true friends out of the way. The most dramatic scenes are a couple that show him as not just angry but downright crazy. In one he starts berating his sparring partners and beating them to a pulp, in another he’s following some girls and somehow ends up running into the back of a convenience store and getting into a racial conflict with the owners. Malcolm Jamal Warner doesn’t even know what got into him. That was a pretty good scene.

But more often it suffers from the old based-on-a-true-story curse: they don’t really know for sure what happened, and they don’t want to get sued, or look stupid by being wrong, or piss people off by portraying it in a way that they think is wrong. So in most of the controversial areas they imply one way and then don’t set it in stone. Don King comes across as a sleazy con artist, but it never says he’s ripping him off. Robin Givens and her mom seem to be golddiggers (and faking a pregnancy and miscarriage for his benefit), but if so Mike never admits it. We see him just before picking up girls, just before going into the hotel room with Desiree Washington (looking up to no good)… not that I necessarily want to see these things play out, but in every case where the movie has a tough decision to make it chooses the path where it runs away like a sissy.

Another problem is not the fault of the movie, but it’s obsolete now because Mike Tyson got much more interesting after this was made. In prison he converted to Islam, got some crazy communist tattoos, he got the title again and then got far more washed-up before. Plus he got his face tattoo and, most important of all by far, bit off Evander Holyfield’s ear. And a Mike Tyson biography without ear-biting is like NORTH BY NORTHWEST without the cropduster. Maybe they should add some text at the end: “In 1997, Tyson bit off a chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear.”

Even the earlier events are kind of obsolete now because they’re more interesting told in Tyson’s point-of-view in the TYSON documentary. In fact, this movie is easier on him than that one is, glossing over his extramarital affairs, his crimes when he was younger and his eventual laziness. That one shows more of his flamboyant side too, with all the clips of him saying crazy shit at the ringside. In this one he’s kind of bland.

But don’t worry, if you are disappointed in the movie and it is not yet 1996 there is an offer at the end of the video where you can send in to be reimbursed up to $2.50 for your rental. When I watched it it was 2009 so the offer was no good, but I probaly wouldn’t have sent in anyway. It was about as good as I figured it would be.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Thursday, May 28th, 2009 at 8:25 pm and is filed under Drama, Reviews, Sport. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

22 Responses to “Tyson (1995 HBO movie)”

  1. “Paul Winfield plays Don King as an over-the-top cartoonish supervillain – in other words, he underplays it.”

    And this Vern is why you’re the best.

  2. Don’t be so hard on Uli Edel. He may be just a gun for hire who made some crap in Hollywood AND Germany, but he is without a doubt capable of doing some great stuff. Like his latest movie “The Baader-Meinhof Complex” or the TV movie about Rasputin, with Alan Rickman. (And if I remember right, his Tales From The Crypt episode wasn’t that bad either.)

  3. Most of the TV shows he worked on were good ones too, like Homicide: Life On the Street for example. But it is important to note when a guy directed BODY OF EVIDENCE.

  4. Okay, you are right. As always. :)

  5. Yes, Body of Evidence… he’ll have to live with that. The Baader Meinhof Complex was pretty good, though, so he made up for that a little.

  6. Hey, I LIKED Body of Evidence. Getting Julianne Moore in her most explicit sex scene ever AND being a ‘mainstream’ movie featuring reverse cowgirl by the most famous woman in the world at the time (shot from the front/porn angle!!) is no small feat. Sure, the movie’s not GOOD, but judging it by Vern/DTV standards (i.e. does it have entertainment value, halfway decent performances and plot, well-choreographed and shot sex(fight) scenes?) it’s at least the Marked for Death of softcore. (Original Sin being the Out for Justice).

  7. He also directed LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN, CHRISTIANE F and whatever the hell THIS is (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0158131/).

    AND he worked as assistant director with Douglas Sirk. No slouch there, so.

  8. Jamie – And Albert Pyun was an apprentice to Kurosawa.

    Nothing against Edel, but Pyun despite his coffee boy credentials is still a hack auteur.

  9. I think the point was more related some of Edel’s more striking/interesting work; the Sirk connection was just a curiosity courtesy of my good friends at Wikipedia.

  10. Spawn!!! I almost got into a fight , at the screening , with a bunch of loud bastards. It was the worst movie experience of my life , and I PAID for it !!!But I’ve got to say , when the Inevitable reboot-prequel-re-imagining of Blade will be made , I will keep my fingers crossed for MJW to get the part. I like that guy! After the bad luck with Spawn and Kill Bill , he deserves another chance.And judging by The Dark Knight , I’m not the only one with this opinion.

  11. @Jamie
    Man, I totally forgot about ‘Purgatory’! (Although I’m not sure how it holds up. When I watched it 10 years ago at 1 a.m. on TV, I really liked it.)

    And remember that Uli Edel was supposed to direct ‘Fire Down Below’, before he left the project. :)

  12. Purgatory, being a well-cast western, holds up pretty decently. It’s no The Desperate Trail or Blind Justice as TV westerns go, but worth re-visiting.

  13. All this off-topic talk reminds me of TOMBSTONE. I remember that being pretty damn entertaining. BAADER MEINHOF was pretty good but once the original group were imprisoned halfway through it ran out of steam a little. And all the prescient talk of terrorist creation/prevention seemed a little too on the money – I think some people had the same problem with MUNICH, and with a great number of films set in the recent (and not so recent) past; that at least one of the characters has to have dialogue that makes it “relevant” to the present day.

    I saw Mike Tyson in THE HANGOVER trailer earlier in the week, playing himself. I never saw BLACK & WHITE: does he play himself in that too? What sort of screen presence has he got?

  14. Jamie – thanks for bringing it back on topic, my bad. – THIS is what kind of screen presence Tyson has – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RiBPtyBxfqI
    Reminds me of watching wrestling and yelling out “It’s a shoot!”

  15. Thanks for that Neal2Zod.

    I must admit, I’m fascinated by your correlation between mainstream soft-cock titilation and Seagal films. By your reckoning, what is the equivalent of, say, UNDER SIEGE 2?

  16. Don’t forget Tyson’s cameo in that last CROCODILE DUNDEE picture.

  17. I don’t know, but Showgirls is definitely the On Deadly Ground.

  18. anyone know where i can get a dvd copy of this movie?

  19. Here’s the link of where you can buy this movie

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0114759/

  20. Forgot to mention that Paul Winfield also played Lucious Sweet, a super-villain who actually is a cartoon, on THE SIMPSONS. Specifically in the episode that made light of Tyson’s return, “The Homer They Fall”.

  21. It’s nearly impossible to find experienced people for this topic, however, you sound like you know
    what you’re talking about! Thanks

  22. The ESPN 30 FOR 30 film CHASING TYSON is on Netflix Instant now. It’s centered around him and Evander Holyfield, and is quite a good doc. Basically all footage from the 80’s and 90’s with present-day voice-overs.

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