By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
7:00 AM CST, November 16, 2013
No one will ever accuse Mike Tyson of leading an unexamined life. With a Cannes-debuted documentary, a six-part Fox Sports miniseries, a one-man Broadway show and now a "tell-all" memoir, the former heavyweight champion has been self-chronicled within an inch of his life.
Now that one-man show, "Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth," will air Saturday night on HBO. While it shares a title with the memoir, it presents Tyson more as light-hearted raconteur than violently complicated man attempting to make sense of it all.
Produced by Spike Lee and written by Tyson's wife, Kiki, "Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth" is many things, but "undisputed" may be pushing it. It's instead a carefully curated, at times quite stagy, fan-friendly version of a very divisive figure.
In its opening moments, Tyson is seated in dark silhouette as Nat King Cole croons the fey ballad "Nature Boy." Not, perhaps, the first song one associates with a heavyweight champion who has done time, most famously for rape. Or for one who once bit off part of opponent's ear and has admitted to a lot of drug abuse throughout his life.
But that's the point. This is the other Mike Tyson, the one who knows he's made a lot of mistakes and wants to learn from them.
With his famously soft voice and considerable comedic timing, Tyson is very comfortable on stage. His still-formidable presence and athletic grace easily wins half the battle, but, the many references to his speech-coach aside, he handles a 90-minute monologue with relative deftness.
There are times when he lapses into incomprehensible street patter and others when he stands like a student groping for the next stanza of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Still, it's no easy task engaging a live audience's attention for an hour and a half while talking exclusively about oneself.
Unfortunately, the novelty of seeing Mike Tyson lightheartedly discuss his wretched childhood and telling colorful tales of mentor Cus D'Amato soon wears thin. The script is too uneven. Some stories go on too long — a disjointed recounting of a brawl with Mitch Green and a bizarre encounter with a young Brad Pitt. Others, meanwhile, including and especially his rape conviction and the incident of Evander Holyfield's ear — are glossed over.
"I did not rape Desiree Washington," he says with sudden coldness, "and that's all I'll say about that."
So much for undisputed.
Tyson's jovial demeanor also chills to mean-spiritedness when discussing his former wife, Robin Givens, against whom he still apparently nurses quite a grudge. He doesn't feel much better about his former manager, Don King, whom he blames for his financial ruin.
Indeed, as "Undisputed Truth" proceeds, it takes on something of an aggrieved tone. Tyson "takes responsibility" by identifying the forces that conspired against him. That list ranges from Givens to larger, more amorphous things like sudden success and the huge gap between his Brownsville life and his celebrity.
His only sin, it seems, was being stupid.
Although the show does not truly build to a particular point, the narrative climax comes with Tyson describing the tragic death of his 4-year-old daughter, Exodus, in 2009. It is a moving moment that the show in no way exploits, but its presence points out the flaws of what has preceded it. Tyson does not mention either of his other two wives, or any of his seven living children.
In his book of the same name, Tyson seems to take a more rigorous look at his own culpability than in this staged version — which, in the end, appears to be more marketing ploy than personal or social excavation. The film feels more like Tyson's attempt to reconfigure his relevance in the social conversation, which he clearly hopes will continue to revolve around him.
'Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth'
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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