Movie Review: “Hands of Stone”

Edgar Ramirez, Robert de Niro, Ana de Armas, Usher Raymond, Ruben Blades, Ellen Barkin, John Turturro
Jonathan Jakubowicz

Most boxing fans know the name Roberto Duran, but for someone who’s widely regarded as one of the greatest fighters of all time (in addition to holding titles in four different weight classes, he’s the only person to beat Sugar Ray Leonard in his prime), Duran lacks the mainstream recognition of fellow boxers like Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson and even Leonard himself. Writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz hopes to remedy that with his new film, “Hands of Stone,” but while it boasts a pair of solid performances from stars Edgar Ramirez and Robert De Niro, the true-life drama doesn’t offer anything different from the dozens of other boxing movies that came before it. “Hands of Stone” is your typical rise-and-fall redemption story, so aggressively mediocre that Jakubowicz would have been better off taking some risks and failing than to settle for this.

The film begins in 1971 with Panamanian boxer Roberto Duran (Ramirez) already on the rise. Despite his natural talent, however, Duran lacks the discipline required to succeed at the highest level, so his manager Carlos Eleta (Ruben Blades) convinces legendary trainer Ray Arcel (De Niro) to turn him into a world champion. Arcel has been retired since being run out of boxing by the mafia nearly 20 years earlier, but he sees something in Duran that reignites his love of the sport and agrees to train him for free, a stipulation of his agreement with local gangster Frankie Carbo (John Turturro). Though the hotheaded and fervently nationalistic Duran is hesitant about working with an American trainer due to his experiences growing up in the U.S.-controlled Canal Zone, he ultimately learns to trust Arcel and builds a successful career over the next decade, culminating in a pair of fights with American sports icon Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond) that would both make and break his career.

“Hands of Stone” plays like a greatest hits of Duran’s life, racing through a flashback of his childhood days stealing food to survive on the streets of Panama before fast-forwarding six years to the early 1970s (magically transforming Duran from a young boy into Edgar Ramirez), where he woos his future wife Felicidad (Ana de Armas) and begins to make a name for himself in the boxing ring. The latter half of the movie, meanwhile, concerns itself with Duran’s intense rivalry with Leonard, his ensuing downfall (including the infamous “No mas” rematch fight) and the inevitable comeback that cemented his name in the history books. It’s the type of inspiring true story that seems tailor-made for the big screen, but it’s too unfocused to be as effective or affecting as it wants, juggling a number of unnecessary storylines that only drag down the central narrative.

The film is at its best when focusing on the relationship between Duran and Arcel, mainly because the two performances are so good. Ramirez has the movie star charisma and devil-may-care glint in his eyes to pull off Duran’s bravado (it’s amazing he hasn’t been tapped for a superhero franchise yet), while De Niro delivers a refreshingly subtle turn as the wise and kind father figure that Duran never had. Though the supporting cast doesn’t have much to do – save for Ana de Armas, who’s slowly becoming an actress to watch between her work here and in last week’s “War Dogs” – it’s filled with veteran actors like Blades, Turturro, Ellen Barkin and Reg E. Cathey (as flamboyant boxing promoter Don King) who know how to make the most of their limited screen time.

Unfortunately, while the acting is strong across the board, the movie is constantly getting in its own way. The emotional beats aren’t given enough room to breathe, and thus fall flat as a result, while subplots involving Arcel and Leonard’s personal lives feel out of place in a film about Roberto Duran. The boxing sequences fare a little better, staged using jarring quick cuts and bone-crunching sound effects that mirror Duran’s fierce fighting style, but in doing so, Jakubowicz inadvertently makes them less exciting for the audience. Though it’s nice to see a biopic whose affection for its subject shines through in the final product, “Hands of Stone” tries to cram so much into the tightly-paced 105-minute runtime that it fails to demonstrate what makes his story special. The movie is all right, but for someone with Duran’s accomplishments, it should have been great.


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