Hands of Stone is a rise, fall and rise again story of famed Panamanian
boxer Roberto Duran (Ramirez) who leapt into notoriety in the 70's
after his first controversial appearance at Madison Square Gardens. By
the time of his retirement in 2002 at the age of 50, he had 199 fights
under his belt with 103 wins and four titles as a light weight, welter
weight, light middle weight and middle weight. The film however focuses
on his relationship with legendary boxing trainer Ray Arcel (De Niro)
whose own exploits in the boxing world made him the first trainer to be
inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame.
Doing a movie of this nature, a couple of questions arise. How do you
accurately and intimately make a film about the life and times of
Roberto Duran who in addition to being a legend was also a legendary
pre-fight s**t talker? How can one best encapsulate the real life of a
man who at one point was the guiding light of an entire nation yet had
enough of an ego to name all of his male heirs Roberto? Finally, how do
you do make that movie great while siphoning off of cues and themes
from inspirations like Rocky (1976) and Raging Bull (1980)?
The answer is of course you can't; but you can make a half-way decent
film out of everything. And that's basically what director Jonathan
Jakubowicz and Bob and Harvey Weinstein have done. It plods its course,
steadily paces itself, jab at the appropriate emotional moments and
ducks from the energy-sucking minutia that episodic plot-lines tend to
have in abundance. Robert De Niro is fine as Ray Arcel giving a spry,
worthwhile performance in the same ballpark as Billy Sunday in Men of
Honor (2000). Likewise Edgar Ramirez hits all the right notes as our
beleaguered hero giving the screenplay a much better performance than
it honestly deserves. Ana de Armas, Usher Raymond, Ruben Blades, Oscar
Jaenada and Ellen Barkin are all very good with Reg E. Cathey giving a
very small but showstopping performance as infamous boxing promoter Don
King. Heck even the balance of languages (English and Spanish) is
respectfully and organically done. If a great film is three great
scenes and no bad ones, then Hands of Stone is 50% of the way there.
Yet much like the underrated Southpaw (2015), it also has no pivotal,
never forget scenes or iconic lines. The brightly colored barrios of
Panama City and the glitzy sparkle of Las Vegas, not to mention the
atmospherics of locker rooms inexplicably filled with smoke, don't
really leave an impact. Neither do the stakes of Duran's life which,
much like Billy Hope's, was and probably still is filled with conflict,
inner-turmoil and a pride that manifests in nationalistic fervor. It's
a shame too because if the film decided to explore that aspect of
Duran's life, i.e. his relationship to Panama and its people, it could
have been unique enough to recommend strongly.
Yet instead, the film doubles down on the "success is ruination" themes
picked up by Raging Bull, while kneading out the supposed nobility of a
sport in which two grown men beat the crap out of each other. Yet while
watching Hands of Stone, I kept hoping they would change up the
kinetic, fast-paced editing of the fight sequences with moments that
were, say a little more poetic. For those of you who know what I'm
insinuating, congratulations you've seen a "great" scene from a "great"
movie about boxing.
The best that can be said about Hands of Stone is it does what it does
predictably and well, like a cover band that's been around for years.
It's energetic, it's fun to watch, it certainly has talented people who
put their heart and soul into the project and it plays all the
hits...yet it's not the real thing. Oh well, a tin star still shines, a
discount belt still buckles and Hands of Stone is still good. Watch it
if you must, otherwise watch Rocky again instead.