Man, the Weinsteins just can't buy a break with their recent boxing dramas. Last year they openly suggested Jake Gyllenhaal's Southpaw would be an Oscar contender and it was noticeably upstaged by Creed. They've had similar hopes for the Roberto Duran biopic Hands of Stone, but its placement at the tail end of summer tells you they eventually came around to their senses. Not that the film is bad, but it doesn't deliver the heavy emotional blows worth of its hard-hitting subject.
Movies about the squared circle remain the ultimate in "man vs. life" microcosm, which is why they are perfectly suited to the cinematic treatment. And Duran's story would seem to be well in-line with that, as he rose from a poor Panamanian upbringing to become one of the greatest, most enduring lightweight champions in boxing history. That he's known mostly for his infamous "No mas" match against Sugar Ray Leonard is a disservice to his legacy as a ferocious competitor who had more than 200 fights and won titles in four separate weight classes. Duran was a beast; Hands of Stone, named after the boxer's well-earned nickname, ironically lacks punching power.
Edgar Ramirez capably fills the gloves of Duran, who we see scrapping for food and money as a child in Panama. When his fighting ability is noticed by a local trainer, Duran begins to rise in the ranks as an epic slugger. Always confident, Duran has no problem talking to get what he wants, including the heart of the gorgeous Felicidad Iglesias (Ana de Armas), an beauty well above his social status. It's not until Duran hooks up with famed Jewish trainer Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro) that his career really takes off. Writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz struggles with the placement of Ray's story. Is it the primary plot or a secondary one behind that of Duran's, and the lack of focus is glaring. Ray's been out of the game for years, having been edged out by New York mobsters (John Turturro plays infamous gangster/promoter Frankie Carbo) for refusing to fix fights. The rule is that he can never earn another penny as a trainer, so Ray agrees to train Duran for free because that's how much he believes in his talent.
Ray, who was well into his '70s at the time, invests everything into Duran and teaches him the tricks of the trade. One of his clever pscyhological ploys comes between rounds when he would gently comb Duran's hair so he always started the next round looking unscathed. It works, and soon Duran is top of the heap after defeating the previously unbeaten Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond) for the Lightweight championship. From there, Duran's hot head and ego get the best of him, and the trajectory downward is swift, only to be followed by many learned lessons and redemption.
As great as boxing movies are, they can be painfully formulaic and Hands of Stone definitely qualifies as such. This isn't a problem if the other aspects are elevated to make each boxer's story seem special, or at least worthy of being told. There's little heart and soul injected into Duran's journey, however, and at no point are we made to feel like his career is as great as it was in reality. There's also very little attempt to provide insight into why Duran is who he is. What are the motivations behind the demeaning comments he makes towards Leonard's wife before their fight? If it was to sell tickets then we could at least say Duran was a precursor to the staged antics of today, but that reason is never given. Why, at the height of his success, does he then push away everyone who ever helped him achieve greatness? Why is he incapable of training and maintaining weight, a problem that directly affects his unwanted rematch with Leonard, the "no mas" fight that has become legend? And ultimately, what made him utter those words and quit the fight, tarnishing his career forever? Hands of Stone doesn't offer much in the way of answers and doesn't seem interested in them, which begs the question, "Why is this movie here at all?"
Hands of Stone plows forward in a straight-ahead fashion, similar to how Duran battled in the ring. Where it finds greatest success is in those in-ring showdowns as Jakubowicz and DP Miguel Ioann Littin Menz capture the energy, artistry, and viciousness of the sweet science. Ramirez doesn't get much of a chance to endear Duran to us, but inside the ring he's a physical dynamo. De Niro, no stranger to boxing movies after classic Raging Bull and not-so-classic Grudge Match, knows the scene and fits in nicely as a mentor/father figure to Duran. And in a surprise Usher is actually great as Sugar Ray Leonard; not only is he practically a Leonard clone but he captures his dashing exuberance. In the ring he dances and smiles and jabs, grinning from ear to ear with each punch; a happy assassin just like Leonard. Maybe it's unfair that Hands of Stone exists in a world where so many great boxing movies have come before it. If they didn't exist we may look at it in a different way. But they do exist, and the best fighters should always rise to the level of their competition, not be defeated by them.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5