Part boxing movie and part biopic, Hands of Stone tells the story of Roberto Durán (Edgar Ramírez), a boxer who rose from poverty in Panama to become a world champion. Yes, you’ve seen this kind of movie plenty of times before, and the fact that this is based on a true story isn’t necessarily adding to the appeal. But this will: The fight scenes and training montages are edited in an engaging way, and the film is full of little moments and details that make it a truly lively and dynamic viewing experience.
Durán is an up-and-coming boxer when he hooks up with esteemed trainer Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro) in 1971. Through Arcel, Durán learns both boxing technique and how to strategize, and when this is combined with his natural “ring sense,” it makes him nearly unbeatable and world famous. His biggest rival is Sugar Ray Leonard, who’s nicely played by hip-hop star Usher Raymond as a mild-mannered guy who’s light on his feet and tough to beat in the ring. We also see Durán outside of the ring, mostly chasing a schoolgirl named Felicidad (Ana de Armas) and engaging with Panamanian locals after he becomes famous.
Written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz, the film is at its best when Arcel and Durán interact. Note the way Arcel combs Durán’s hair in between rounds of a fight because it intimidates the opponent to see Durán coming out looking fresh, and the fact that the reason Durán hates being hungry while training is because he was often hungry as a kid and it brings back horrible memories. Also, notice that Arcel doesn’t allow Durán to mouth off to him, and more than once puts Durán in his place, but at the same time he fights for and defends Durán against all who try to take advantage of him. Their bond is articulated through their actions, not words of affection. It’s quite nice, actually.
There are some extraneous moments: All of Ray Arcel’s personal life should’ve been left on the editing room floor, but doing so would’ve cut out three things: 1) John Turturro as a New York City gangster; 2) Ellen Barkin as Arcel’s wife; and 3) Drena De Niro (Robert’s adopted daughter) as Arcel’s estranged daughter. Admittedly Robert De Niro is really good here, but you can’t help but wish Jakubowicz could’ve looked objectively at the film and realized what’s obvious to us: that focusing on Durán alone would’ve made the movie better.
These distractions are worsened by the fact that Durán’s story is so compelling, meaning we want him on screen more and don’t want to be distracted by Arcel’s personal drama. Destitute, lacking education and abandoned by his father at age 14, Durán fought in street fights for money before going under the wing of a boxing trainer named Plomo (Pedro Perez). His journey to become a champion, complete with adversity, love and fame, is as compelling a rags to riches tale as you’ll find. Ramírez plays him with the appropriate stubborn conviction, and in the process gets us to like Durán and forgive him for his flaws.
If you don’t follow boxing, you might not know the name Roberto Durán, and that’s okay. After all, it doesn’t mean you cannot (or will not) enjoy his story in Hands of Stone, which is about on par with Creed in terms of overall quality. Or put another way, it’s a solid movie worthy of the admirable life and career Durán has led.
Hands of Stone (R) Dir. and writ. Jonathan Jakubowicz; feat. Robert De Niro, Edgar Ramírez, Usher Raymond, John Turturro, Ellen Barkin Opens August 26
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