dito montiel meet james toback. the directors of this week's two evocatively titled boxing films-montiel's fighting and toback's tyson-share a distinct interest in the public expression of class, race and male sexuality. each filmmaker's approach to storytelling derives from autobiographical impulses: toback's career reflects a background of relative manhattan privilege, montiel's reflects working-class queens. they see the world-and moviemaking-with sharp, ethnic focus. as products of new york ethnic challenge, they're given to romanticizing the hustling spirit. both, at their idiosyncratic best, are poets.
tyson is toback's 12th film, fighting is montiel's second, but their similarities are as meaningful as their differences. the casual power of toback going face-to-face with heavyweight champion mike tyson (though with only tyson's face on screen) reveals a confidence and purpose that montiel seeks through his fictionalized surrogate-protagonist, shawn macarthur (channing tatum). favoring a rags-to-riches pattern, montiel stands to learn what toback knows about film and about life-and so do we. that's what makes the movie tyson extraordinary.
instead of wimpily presenting his friend mike tyson as a mythic monster, toback gives tyson his day. recalling shirley clarke's classic 1966 portrait of jason, (a cinéma vérité confession of what back then was called "a negro homosexual"), tyson lets ultra-macho mike tyson speak for himself-revealing the unexpected, frightening/charming and fascinating aspects of his character. toback's candor risks being shocking-especially in an era when the media creates lockstep conformity and sheep-like timidity about human nature. that's why toback's two girls and a guy, black and white and when will i be loved are among the boldest american movies of the past decade. toback dares honest, truly independent investigation into human behavior. critics unfamiliar (or hostile) to toback's filmmaking virtues will misunderstand how tyson is also a mirror of toback's own worldliness and intelligence. to my knowledge, there simply is no film on record that examines a boxer's intellect this way. tyson avoids clichés of underdog, underclass beastliness and observes what peculiarities define him as a man. this complicates typical documentary categorization, much like the recently released anvil: the movie.
strangely, tyson's effect is like watching a dramatization. tyson's swollen battered face, now decorated with a maori tribal tattoo, is an ironic image of sensitivity. aged into a monument of masculine experience, similar to an earlier toback icon, athlete-actor jim brown, the younger tyson's brutishness also recalls marlon brando as boxer terry malloy in on the waterfront: we see the mind and soul within the animal.
montiel stays on the surface of his boxer-hero, shawn (tatum) even though his eroto-romantic method (like his touching 2005 debut a guide to recognizing your saints) suggests deep emotional sympathy. montiel may not be familiar with toback's breakthroughs in psychological revelation. had he seen two girls and a guy, he might have devised a more enlightening portrait of masculine bravado instead of the way fighting lets tatum's shawn fall back on trite machismo. (next to tyson's loquacious personal declarations, shawn's reticence seems pre-hip-hop.) in tyson, toback challenges macho legend. tyson's own confessions (about the rape conviction, the evander holyfield mutilation) let his failures and his ambition battle it out. judgment's so easy. understanding is complicated.
toback's film is an act of bravura empathy. without faking hipster identification, toback implies soul-appreciation of the other-as-brother that montiel mucks up in white boy shawn's relationship with his black mentor harvey (terrence howard). tatum's long, sullen face with coin-like ears, pouty lips and bright eyes is modishly sensual-thus marketable-but howard's handsome, cat-eyed caginess grounds montiel's story in a more complex personality. harvey evokes strother martin's memorable grifter in hard times; he's a born hustler who looks to thrive rather than rise. and howard's light, purring voice (not far from tyson's incongruous lisp) completes this original characterization. shawn fights with his body, a cliché that complements montiel's urban fantasies. but harvey fights with his mind.
that's also the implied revelation of toback's inquiry. despite emphasis on physicality and scandal, this doc prioritizes the life of the mind. tyson's manchild persona and autodidact vocabulary don't hide apparent pain, aggression and confusion-visualized in a split screen focus on his eyes and candid malapropisms. using the life trajectory similar to barbara kopple's very good fallen champ (1993) and jose torres' 1989 biography, fire and fear, toback romanticizes it-the film poet's way of humanizing it.
montiel's poetry isn't as deep. bobby "blue" bland's "ain't no love in the heart of the city," a classic from the blaxploitation era, sets montiel's theme just as it anchored the blueprint, jay-z's great 2001 cd. fighting develops the boxing metaphor as an extension of montiel's autobiographical debut. the sport, shown as a brutal means of panic and ambition in tyson, offers a blueprint for montiel's urban fable. grittier than scorsese's new york romanticism, fighting maintains the contemporary sense of urban struggle that scorsese gave up. its crazy-quilt nyc geography is, paradoxically, rich with incidents authenticating outer-borough manias. too bad the boxing blueprint doesn't provide montiel the profound insight of walter hill's hard times and undisputed which perfectly combined class, ethnicity and existentialism into the two best boxing movies ever made.
fighting's naive urban poetry often seems improvised, a cinematic version of rap freestyling-as in shawn's poorly devised rivalry with homeboy evan (brian white, spectacularly arrogant, as in mr. 3000). yet montiel's narrative collapses, lacking hill's masterful symmetry-or even never back down's genre efficiency. a reginald marsh-like image of harvey facing a times square replica of the statue of liberty conveys montiel's realization of how today's underclass believes in and tests itself against the american dream ideal. this context is what was lacking in the sado-masochistic narcissism of fight club, and it's this context that links fighting to toback's tyson.
lifting the skin of its controversial sports figure and with the fighter's commentary on his own life articulating a boxer's rage or euphoria, a lover's lust or insecurity ("there's nothing like fighting when you're young and you're happy." "conquering so many women takes something out of you.")
tyson is a mirror portrait that gets under our skin. through film, toback achieves what even his mentor norman mailer's magnificent writing on boxing was never able to accomplish. -- tyson directed by james toback runtime: 90 min. -- fighting directed by dito montiel runtime: 105 min.