So give me a stage
Where this bull here can rage
And though I could fight
I’d much rather recite
That’s Robert De Niro as Jake La Motta in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, playing a once-feared prizefighter who’s been reduced to a novelty act — lonely, overweight, clinging pathetically to the spotlight. There is no mistaking the influence of Raging Bull on the new Hulu miniseries Mike, which takes just such a humble one-man-show as the jumping-off point for an unauthorized telling of the story of another boxing great, Mike Tyson, whose triumphs in the ring are similarly linked to instances of terrible violence before, during, and after his reign as heavyweight champion. Attaching itself to one of the greatest films of the 1980s seems like a wise move for the series, because it’s a sturdy model for contending with a real-life figure whose contradictory personality can be examined from multiple angles at once. It also suits the series’s director, Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya), whose penchant for a constantly moving camera, voiceover narration, and an aggressive pop soundtrack also mirror Scorsese closely.
And yet, Raging Bull casts an awfully long shadow over this first episode of Mike, which zips through the details of Tyson’s early life with a stylistic zestiness that makes the material seem thinly considered and facile at times. That was a problem that dogged Gillespie’s last Hulu project, Pam & Tommy, an addictively watchable series that nonetheless arrived at conspicuously 2021 conclusions about celebrity and mainstream misogyny. But just as Pam & Tommy had a strong anchor in Lily James’s rangy, multidimensional Pamela Anderson, Mike has the superb Trevante Rhodes playing Tyson with an uncanny feel not only for the famous lisp in his voice, but certain physical tics, too, like his tendency to giggle and shrug his way through uncomfortable moments. The show’s Tyson is a child and a beast, at once innocent and unfathomably vicious, and Rhodes has the skill to work both ends of that spectrum at the same time.
Written by Steven Rogers, who penned I, Tonya for Gillespie, “Thief” opens with the sort of narrative feint that’s common in Gillespie’s work, which tends to speak to audiences with a knowing wink. The Tonya Harding of I, Tonya isn’t the white-trash sporting villain who had her rival whacked in the knee, but our misunderstood friend, telling us her side of the story. That approach isn’t one-side-fits-all here, since Tyson’s story swerves into rape and spousal abuse, but Mike (and Mike) are anxious to provide some context. Opening in 1997, when Tyson bit off a chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear, is not a good place to start a story that needs to follow more of an arc to get to the lowest moment in his professional career. “No, no, no fuck that shit,” says Tyson in the narration, and history is dutifully rewound.
From there, Rogers and Gillespie introduce the framing device of Tyson’s autobiographical show in an Indiana theater in 2017, which certainly looks like a swankier venue than the smoky nightclub where La Motta performs in Raging Bull. (The scene most likely references the real-life Tyson’s “Undisputed Truth” tour around the same period.) He introduces himself as both a lovable eccentric who bought a tiger from his car dealer and “the most vicious, ruthless champion that’s ever been.” In this more presentable form, he’s even capable of a little self-deprecation, as he cheekily references an infamous press conference where he said he wanted to eat Lennox Lewis’s children. He promises to tell the audience the truth, but how that truth is framed is entirely up to him. And, here, to the makers of Mike.
Mike flashes back to Tyson’s childhood in 1974, when he lived with the Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn, which had the highest murder rate in the country at the time. As a self-described “fat fuck that everybody fucks with,” he gets routinely bullied at school and beaten down on the streets, and then returns home to a domestic situation that’s equally violent, from his parents beating each other up to his own abuse for stepping out of line. Mike rushes through these traumas at typically breakneck speed, but the thumbnail psychology is nonetheless persuasive: How could a kid called “retarded” by a psychologist, bullied out of school, and raised in an environment of constant upheaval and domestic abuse be expected to have a great outcome? The precocious young Tyson is on track for an endless cycle of criminality and incarceration, and his disappointed mother cannot slap him straight.
The irony is that his hardscrabble environment nurtures a gift that a more stable upbringing might never have revealed: He’s excellent at beating people up. In the highlight of this first episode, Gillespie stages young Tyson’s first successful beatdown — of a bully who tears the head off one of his beloved pigeons — to DMX’s “X Gon’ Give It to Ya” and cuts away to an older Tyson’s thrashing of Leon Spinks in 1988. It was a running joke in the Tyson years that you wouldn’t get much for Pay Per View dollars you spent on one of his fights, because he’d routinely flatten opponents in the first round. He was that ferocious. And by connecting the Spinks knockout with Tyson’s first knockout as a kid, Gillespie suggests the core appeal of Tyson as a boxer: He’s not a technical pugilist, but an angry, explosive, brawling street fighter.
And yet, he remains a passive and impressionable child. When Bobby Stewart, his detention counselor and trainer in prison, suggests that he train with Cus D’Amato (Harvey Keitel), an old pro who coached champions like Floyd Patterson and José Torres, Tyson looks shattered by the news. He doesn’t understand how this will advance his career and better his life. He only sees Stewart as another in a long line of grown-ups who has rejected him. And when Tyson finally does meet Cus, who talks about turning him into the youngest champion in history, his focus is on the roses in the vase behind Cus. He’s never seen roses in real life before. The moment makes him seem weird and distractible. But perhaps he’s on the same page as D’Amato: Seeing flowers for the first time is a sign that he may be special, after all.
• Curious to see how much the show interrogates Tyson’s “I’m not going to lie about anything in this show” line. Someone telling their own story may not lie, necessarily, but there can be a gulf between their truth and the truth as others understand it, especially in the case of a figure as controversial as Tyson.
• Tyson falling in love with pigeons recalls another film referenced in Raging Bull: On the Waterfront, in which Marlon Brando, a palooka who “coulda been a contender” has a soft spot for birds.
• “She died before she could see any success I had” is one heartbreaking line.
• The real-life Mike Tyson is not happy this series exists.