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 plenty of times before, and the fact that this is based on a true story isn’t necessarily adding to the appeal. But this will: The fight scenes and training montages are edited in an engaging way, and the film is full of little moments and details that make it a truly 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 both boxing technique and how to strategize, and this combined with his natural “ring sense” makes him nearly unbeatable and world famous. His biggest rival is Sugar Ray Leonard, who’s 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 the fact that Duran hates being hungry while training because it brings back horrible memories of being hungry as a kid. 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 Duran against anyone who tries to take advantage of him. Their bond is articulated through their actions, not words of affection.
There are some extraneous moments: All of 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 real-life 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 looked objectively at the film and realized what’s obvious to us — that focusing on Duran alone would’ve made the movie better.
These distractions are worsened by the fact that Duran’s story is so compelling, meaning we want him on screen more and don’t want to be distracted by Arcel’s personal drama. 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 (Pedro Perez). 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 OK. After all, it doesn’t mean you cannot (or will not) enjoy his story in Hands of Stone. Put another way, it’s a solid movie worthy of the admirable life and career Duran has led.