“Hands of Stone” Throws a Punch, Takes a Beating

Hands of Stone

Hands of Stone (Jonathan Jakubowicz, 2016)

Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramírez (Carlos) stars as famed Panamanian boxer Roberto Durán in Hands of Stone, a new biopic from Venezuelan director Jonathan Jakubowicz (Secuestro Express). Cuban actress Ana de Armas (War Dogs) comes along for the ride as Durán’s long-suffering wife, Felicidad, along with Panamanian actor Rubén Blades (Cradle Will Rock), as Carlos Eleta, Durán’s long-suffering manager/promoter. All of these good folks bring a certain authenticity to the project, especially Ramírez who, though a little bigger than the real deal, completely inhabits the title role, portraying Durán in his all his physical glory, manic intensity and depressive vindictiveness. As played by Ramírez, Durán is not a particularly nice man, but certainly one with a compelling life story.

Joining our Latin-American friends are the former Raging Bull himself, Robert De Niro, as legendary boxing trainer Ray Arcel; Ellen Barkin (The Chameleon, and many a terrific 1980s film), as Arcel’s (also long-suffering) wife; John Turturro (Fading Gigolo) as a New-York mafioso; and pop star Usher as the great Sugar Ray Leonard, Durán’s erstwhile rival in the ring. All are fine actors and deliver solid work here (perhaps Usher could have smiled a little less, though I understand that Leonard was and is a stand-up guy), and make for an engaging ensemble. Why, then, does the movie ultimately feel a little flat? Maybe it’s the nature of the biopic, constrained by the actual facts of the story and the limitations of chronology; maybe it’s the mise-en-scène, which at times veers from melodrama to melodrama; or maybe it’s the occasional expositional voiceover, spoken by De Niro, which tells us what we can already see on screen. Whatever the reason, the movie is eminently watchable, if deeply imperfect.

We start in 1971, which is the first time Arcel lays eyes on Durán. He’s fresh out of Panama, poised for the big time, and carries a huge chip on his shoulder, having grown up in a country occupied by the U.S. military, and born of a union between such a North-American soldier and a teenage Panamanian gal, the soldier abandoning mother and infant son and hightailing it back to the States. Durán uses that rage as fuel for his punches, and as Arcel watches, he knocks out his opponent in 66 seconds. Soon, though Arcel has been banned, by the mob, from receiving income as a trainer, he’s down in Panama, working for free, determined to make Durán a champion. Which, over the course of the ensuing decade, he does. Until Leonard.

Along the way, Durán settles down, has many a child – all named Roberto – with Felicidad (who manages to never lose her girlish figure, looking cinematically, if unbelievably, splendid throughout), and becomes something of a local philanthropist back home. But as Euripides would say, “whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad,” and so we know that Durán will have to hit bottom before he can become the man he was always supposed to be. Perhaps that’s the real problem here. Maybe the facts were odd enough that a truly unusual retelling might have worked; instead, the trajectory ends up feeling conventional, without surprises. Despite these flaws, Hands of Stone is worth watching for Ramirez, alone.