R | 111 min.
Part boxing movie and part biopic, Hands of Stone tells the story of Roberto Duran (Edgar Ramirez), a boxer who rose from poverty in Panama to become a world champion. Yes, you’ve seen this kind of movie before, and the fact that it’s based on a true story doesn’t necessarily add to the appeal. But this will: The fight scenes and training montages truly engaging, and the film is full of moments and details that make it a lively and dynamic viewing experience.
Duran is an up-and-coming boxer when he hooks up with esteemed trainer Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro) in 1971. Through Arcel, Duran learns boxing technique and how to strategize, and when this combines with his natural “ring sense” it makes him nearly unbeatable and world famous.
His biggest rival is Sugar Ray Leonard, 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 Duran 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 Duran interact. Note the way Arcel combs Duran’s hair in between rounds of a fight because it intimidates the opponent to see Duran coming out looking fresh. And note that Duran hates being hungry while training because he was often hungry as a kid and it brings back horrible memories. Also, notice that Arcel doesn’t allow Duran to mouth off to him, and more than once puts Duran in his place, but at the same time fights for and defends him against all who try to take advantage of him. Their bond is articulated through their actions. It’s quite nice, actually.
There are some extraneous moments: 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 realized what’s obvious to us: Focusing on Duran would’ve made the movie better.
Duran’s story is so compelling, we want him on screen more. Destitute, lacking education and abandoned by his father at age 14, Duran fought in street fights for money before going under the wing of a boxing trainer named Plomo. His journey to becoming a champion, complete with adversity, love and fame, is as compelling a rags to riches tale as you’ll find. Ramirez plays him with the appropriate stubborn conviction, and in the process gets us to like Duran and forgive him for his flaws.
If you don’t follow boxing you might not know the name Roberto Duran, and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean you cannot (or will not) enjoy Hands of Stone, which is on par with Creed in overall quality. It’s a movie worthy of the admirable life and career Duran has led.