Hands of Stone isn’t the black eye on the boxing genre, but it presents the genre at its most mediocre and formulaic.
Boxing legend Roberto Duran was a wildcard, so it stands to reason that his biopic, Hands of Stone, would be equally as radical. Promoted by The Weinstein Company, known for its Oscar bait, Hands of Stone arrives at the tail end of the summer – too early for any serious awards consideration and too late to be a summer blockbuster – with television commercials playing up a nonexistent mob angle, trading on Robert De Niro’s past appearances in films on the subject, and a new red-band trailer emphasizing the movie’s sex and female nudity. The boxing comes off as ancillary, and the multitude of narrative voices ends up leaving Hands of Stone suffering from internal bleeding before the first punch is thrown.
The true story of boxer Roberto Duran (Edgar Ramirez) follows the brash pugilist as he grows up poor in Panama. He soon meets trainer Ray Arcel (De Niro) who believes Duran has the power to be a legend. Duran gets the chance of a lifetime when he’s paired to fight the unbeatable Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher).
As someone with little knowledge of Duran’s career, Hands of Stone does a solid job of giving the highlights of the boxer’s difficult upbringing in Panama before becoming a boxing titan after his fights with Leonard. But it’s hard to top last year’s best boxing movie, Creed, and it’s doubtful Hands of Stone will retain any lasting impact past the month.
Jonathan Jakubowicz pulls double duty as director and screenwriter, and he hits the boxing genre’s requisite beats: young man with a rough upbringing gets a trainer and an opportunity, wins, loses and makes a dramatic comeback. Jakubowicz shows some flair with the camera – there’s a great looking aerial shot over the slums that illustrates how confined and cramped everything is; fights scenes emphasize close-ups on muscles in use but, overall, aren’t anything to write home about.
Edgar Ramirez continues to situate himself as an actor to watch, presenting Duran as brash and cocky with a self-aggrandizing air. Scenes in Panama depict Duran as being of two worlds, born to an American father and a Panamanian mother, living in the time of conflict between the U.S. and Panama over the Panama Canal. With its complex political narrative and the way Jakubowicz returns to the conflict throughout, it’s evident he’s more interested in that topic – and Duran’s navigating of the U.S. – than the trainer/boxer relationship of Duran and Arcel. It’s actually contradictory to Duran’s personality that his character is little more than a means to direct Arcel’s story.
De Niro is the film’s biggest name, so Jakubowicz’s script has to be coaxed back to focusing on how “in 66 seconds Robert Duran changed” Arcel’s life. Unfortunately Arcel’s home life is presented as haphazardly as the rest of the film. De Niro does absolutely nothing new, giving advice when needed but generally being Robert De Niro. His home life, with Ellen Barkin as his unnecessary wife, fractures the narrative, jumping in at the most awkward moments. The introduction of his daughter’s heroin overdose comes out of the blue, with his own wife never even knowing of the kid’s existence! The unnamed daughter returns in the third act, probably so the audience doesn’t question whether she lived or died.
So many threads step in and out of the ring, with absolutely no thought as to how they flow in the narrative. One scene might start in Panama while the next is in New York with no context as to when Duran transitioned from one country to the other. Text establishing time and place are few and far between, which would be fine if context were provided or if it felt like any discernible time has passed. The film literally jumps around more than Carmen Sandiego. It becomes laughable seeing Duran’s wife (Ana de Armas in her second film as nothing but eye candy) pop out five kids in rapid succession, but she doesn’t age a day. Duran’s victories feel hollow because the script never gives us time to forget about his win, content to follow the typical “E! True Hollywood Story” mentality of compressing decades of time in a few minutes.
Hands of Stone isn’t the black eye on the boxing genre, but it presents the genre at its most mediocre and formulaic. Outside of Ramirez’s performance, everyone else is underwritten or, in De Niro’s case, resting on their laurels. The amateur script gives us no sense of time or place, and it’s evident that it’s geared towards an American audience, doing a disservice to Duran’s story. I’d be interested in a biopic where Duran took front and center as opposed to being a pawn.