‘Mike’ review: lively Tyson biographical series is no knock-out

Disney+'s take on the life of the heavyweight champion explores his rise and fall outside of the ring but loses sight of its subject

“I’m the most brutal, the most vicious, ruthless champion there’s ever been,” says Mike Tyson near the beginning of Mike, a warts-and-all dramatisation of the controversial boxer’s rise and fall. It’s a fair self-assessment, though this limited series streaming on Disney+ shows little interest in his abilities in the ring – at least until he loses against James Buster Douglas in 1990, amid a spiral of self-destruction.

Instead, Mike is an exhausting and sometimes illuminating trawl through his personal trials, beginning with a Brooklyn childhood tinged with violence, petty crime and, er, pigeons. When a kid from the ’hood rips the head off one of young Mike’s feathered friends, he goes feral. “That’s the day I became a boxer,” he says as he relentlessly beats up the perpetrator. Until then, he was the kid with the high-pitched voice and lisp who got picked on.

Playing Tyson in his adult years is Moonlight star Trevante Rhodes, who does a fine job of capturing the boxer’s distinct speech patterns and mix of coyness and anger. Early on, he meets coach Cus D’Amato (Harvey Keitel), the man who trains Tyson, shaping that raw potential, turning him into a beast in the ring. They’re among some of the best scenes, with Keitel bringing real emotion as this surrogate father.

Mike comes from the team that brought you I, Tonya. Craig Gillespie, who directed that highly entertaining movie about the equally controversial ice skater Tonya Harding, shot one of the episodes. Margot Robbie, who played Harding, is one of the producers here. And most significantly, that film’s screenwriter Steven Rogers is the show’s creator. As such, they take a similar lively approach to biographical storytelling.

Feeling like a homage to Goodfellas with all its zippy camera zooms, Mike frequently breaks the fourth wall, just as Martin Scorsese’s gangster classic did. Anchoring the series is a scene set in an Indiana theatre where Tyson is on stage sharing his life story. “Who am I?” he asks, sounding more like Derek Zoolander than one of the most feared boxers of all time. Over the next eight half-hour episodes, he’ll try to get to the bottom of that question.

There’s little subtlety in Mike. Episodes boast titles like “monster” and “lover”, the latter dedicated to his marriage to actress Robin Givens (Laura Harrier). By the fifth episode, we’re introduced to Desiree Washington (Li Eubanks), a beauty pageant contestant who was raped by Tyson. It went to trial, leading to his conviction and him serving three years of a six-year sentence. The episode makes clear that Washington was dignified enough never to sell her story.

No one could accuse Mike of lionising its subject. Quite the opposite: it barely conceals its contempt for him. Tyson’s abhorrent violence towards women ensures we should never sympathise with him. But with little interest in his stature as a fighter bar occasionally listing some stats, this show doesn’t ever really convince us why we should be interested in him. A tragic figure? A brute in and out the ring? It doesn’t seem to know.

‘Mike’ premieres on Disney+ on September 8

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