“it’s like a Greek tragedy, only I’m the subject”
The moment that sold me on James Toback’s excellent documentary, Tyson, was when the former heavyweight champion of the world was holding back tears, murmuring about when he became a fighter, after trainer Cus D’Amato took him under his wing: “He spoke with me every night about discipline and character, and I knew, I knew nobody, noboby physically, um was gonna fuck with me again.”
I don’t have sympathy for a rapist, but you get a good idea of Tyson the man after watching this film, and he has only just begun to stop being the 12-year old boy who got into his first fight after bullies broke the necks of his homing pigeons. His father abandoned the family when Mike was 2; his mother died when he was 16, when he was still a street tough. Sent to reform school, he thought he was a fighter until a boxer knocked the wind out of him with one shot. When he proved himself through good behavior and discipline, the man taught him to fight, and hooked him up with trainer Cus D’Amato on the outside.
But Mike was a fat little boy who was teased mercilessly in a tough neighborhood, and childhood tears still spring to his face when he talks about it. Much has been said about bullying in schools, and many people still think “it prepares you for life,” but unfortunately it also helps make more bullies. When the heavyweight champion of the world has crushingly low self-esteem, it tells you that this isn’t something that “prepares you for the unfairness of adulthood.” You know what prepares you for that? Good role models, not bullies. Adults who make the difficult choices, who stick their neck out. If Cus D’Amato hadn’t died in 1985- the year Mike exploded into stardom- he might have had a moral center to continue his education from boxer into a man.

But instead, fame, fortune, entourages of sycophants, and predatory “wretched, slimy reptilian motherfuckers” like promoter Don King were there as influences. I believe we all know right from wrong by a certain age, and know that we don’t like being bullied, and should be able to extrapolate that we shouldn’t bully others; but I also know that the wounds of childhood left by emotional abuse and abandonment run deeper than logic, and often leave us broken and hurtful beasts that lash out at those most able to help us. So while I can never forgive Iron Mike for being a rapist and a wifebeater, I can see the desire for redemption in his eyes, now deep set in a puffy face that displays the decades of abuse from opponent’s fists and drugs he took on his own.
Toback’s documentary is a no-holds-barred look at the man. It was decided that Mike would have no say on the final cut, and filming began as he got out of rehab, in a fragile emotional state but a clear-headed one. It’s telling that his tattoos are of Ché Guevara and Mao, revolutionaries who became monsters. Mike revolutionized boxing in his own way, with a lethal combination of power and speed, but in the end he made a mockery of himself. I had no idea that Evander Holyfield was head-butting him- a fact I’m sure he disputes- but can completely understand how a wounded child like Tyson would take that disrespect with such fury that he’d ruin his career by biting the guy’s ear. Was it smart? No. But it was an emotionally stunted man lashing out, as he spiraled into self-destruction.

Does this absolve him? Hell no. But it helps give us a view of the man. It was something that should have been so clear, this huge pit bull of a fighter, with the lispy, high pitched voice, that he was fighting every bully who’d ever made fun of him. And like a pit bull, he was probably a friendly guy before they got hold of him, and beat him into something that could only react by lashing out. The film doesn’t just dwell on the bad, or his origins; we get to re-live his fantastic rise to stardom as one of the world’s premier athletes. 8 second knockouts. The Holmes fight. The Spinks fight. Getting all 3 heavyweight titles and becoming undisputed champion of the world. Mike was a perfect ’80s icon- he was tough, and he didn’t have the personality of a Muhammad Ali. His opponents could run, but they could not hide.
But this is mostly a picture of a man, like Mike himself said- a Greek tragedy, except he’s the subject. Director James Toback- famously independent- decided to show the movie to the opposite of its demographic, older white women who didn’t like boxing. According to the IMDb, he offered them $100 if they left in the first 5 minutes; if they stayed longer, they had to watch it all, and discuss it. Not one left, and many were in tears by the finale. I was never much of a fan; the media lingered too much on his “brutality,” and ignored the fact that under manager Kevin Rooney, he was actually a skilled fighter who took his opponents down with speed and power. But our casually racist attitude toward black athletes at the time encouraged his portrayal as a beast. Something he would live up to.

like a baby stillborn,
Like a beast with his horn,
I have torn everyone who has reached out for me
-Leonard Cohen, “Bird on a Wire”

The Hammer

I was one of the few people who was surprised that after Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla left The Man Show, that Jimmy Kimmel was the one who got his own show. I always found Adam funnier, and I still do. I liked his reality show about remodeling his childhood house, so when I heard of his boxing rom-com called The Hammer, I had to watch it.

Enjoying movies depends a lot on expectations, and I knew what to expect from Carolla- self-deprecating humor, low-key laughs and occasional bizarre comments, with lots of reference to construction sites and hardware stores. If you go in expecting a laugh riot, you’ll be disappointed- but if you like Carolla, you’ll be satisfied. He doesn’t reach for the sky here, but he makes an enjoyable formula film, about the underdog going for the gold and the girl. It’s about as good as Run Fatboy Run with Simon Pegg was- not their best, but reliable and good couch fodder.

Carolla plays Jerry, a sad sack construction worker with his best bud Ossie- his Sancho Panza from his reality show. In one bad day, he loses his job and his girlfriend, and thus starts helping train fighters at his friend’s gym to work the stress out. Turns out his old nickname was The Hammer, and when he pairs up with a tough guy boxer after some trash talk, he knocks him on his ass. So he starts working toward the Olympics light heavyweight.

There he meets Lindsay, a defense lawyer looking for a workout and some moves in case her clients get rapey on her. She’s played by the perky Heather Juergensen of Kissing Jessica Stein, which also shares the same director as this movie. They get along well, and his sense of humor reels her in, even though he drives a shitty pickup truck that you have to bungee the passenger door closed on. When the door flies open, he swerves the truck to close the door. It’s little touches like that which elevate this from typical Rocky-formula comedy mixed with typical rom-com.
The movie wins on its genuine blue collar sensibility. Anyone who’s boxed knows that the movie knows its stuff, and have felt like Jerry does when he says he’s gassed, or when he surprises himself by winning. Carolla’s humor pokes fun at lazy guys like himself, Los Angeles- he and Lindsay have a date at the La Brea Tar Pits- and slow drivers. He has a gift for rambling and rants, somewhere between Lewis Black and Jerry Seinfeld, and the movie makes great use of it. He knows how guys compete, even when they’re friendly, and he knows that obsessing on sports or power tools is not much different than knowing everything about Star Wars.

There are some nice small parts that fill things out. Jane Lynch verbally spars with him in line at the hardware store, and she’s dependable as usual. Ossie from “The Adam Carolla Project” is naturally hilarious, with his genuine smiles as he accidentally sabotages Jerry at every turn. Of course Jerry has to face his greatest opponent for the final fight, but the movie makes it realistic. It’s something every boxing fan’s seen, so it feels legit- the fast fighter dancing away from the heavy hitter to win on points. Can the Hammer sneak one in and knock the guy out?

Let me tell you the movie surprised me. I went in expecting a lot less than what I got. I think it’ll surprise you too. This one’s definitely worth a viewing if you like Carolla at all. He spent $300,000 of his own money to get this into theaters, since the studio was going to put it direct to DVD. He believed in it, and it shows. I’m not sure I’d have ponied up cash as an investor to help him do it, but if it played in New York he would have gotten my $10 ticket and I would not have felt gypped. The MPAA also screwed this touching, cute movie with an R rating for two non-sexual f-bombs that I barely even noticed. Hey MPAA, fuck you.

Rating: Tasty