‘Hands of Stone’: As Roberto Duran, Ramirez boxes like a champ
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The legendary Panamanian boxer Roberto Duran has lived a life — and had a fight career — far more complex and polarizing than what we see onscreen in “Hands of Stone,” but this is still one of the more entertaining boxing pictures of the last decade.
I’m not saying this isn’t a solid picture. I’m just saying if you enjoy this film but you don’t know a ton about Duran, wait until you read up on him and watch documentaries such as “Roberto Duran: “Beyond the Glory” or ESPN’s “30 for 30” titled “No Mas.”
Ah, but as we often say when we review fictionalized films about real-life subjects, the bulk of our attention must be paid to the movie as a movie and not as a historical document about the individuals and events portrayed — and as such, writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s “Hands of Stone” is a rousing, well-filmed and solid (if at times overly generous to Duran) biopic with a bounty of charismatic performances, two of the sexier scenes of the year, some welcome laughs and a few above average fight sequences.
Among the film’s strengths:
• Edgar Ramirez in a true star turn as Duran. From the moment we see the street kid in bell bottoms strutting through the streets of Panama through his meteoric rise to adored world champion to his self-destructive bouts with gluttony, his hedonistic excess, his misogynistic rants and the moment in the ring when he brought shame upon himself and his country, Ramirez captures the essence of the enigmatic Duran.
• Robert De Niro, who of course starred in and won an Oscar for his work in the greatest boxing picture of all time with “Raging Bull” in 1980, going a long way toward wiping our memories of the regrettable “Grudge Match” with a warm, authentic, heartfelt performance as Ray Arcel, the legendary Jewish-American boxing trainer who became a father figure to Duran and helped guide him from raw talent to one of great boxers of the 20th century.
• The pop star Usher, aided by just the right amount of prosthetics, turning in a brilliant supporting turn as the dashing, fleet-footed, charismatic and well-spoken Sugar Ray Leonard — who is everything the illiterate Duran is not, and is the perfect villain, or is it hero, to go up against Roberto in two epic bouts in 1980. (Leonard and Duran actually fought a third time, in 1989, when both were well past their primes. “Hands of Stone” wisely ignores that lackluster bout.)
• John Turturro lighting it up as an old-school New York mobster who once put a stop to Arcel’s career and nearly ended his life; Ellen Barkin as Arcel’s tough-as-nails but ever-devoted wife; Reg E. Cathey, who does amazing things with just a handful of lines as notorious promoter Don King; and Ana de Armas, the go-to love interest of the month, fresh off her turn as Miles Teller’s wife in “War Dogs,” in a fiery performance as Duran’s sexy and independent wife, Felicidad, who puts up with his nonsense and puts up with his nonsense — until she doesn’t. Great work all around.
Writer-director Jakubowicz lays it on pretty thick with the flashback sequences showing a young Roberto swiping mangoes so his family can eat while Americans retain control over the Panama Canal Zone. And even as an adult, Duran retains a seething resentment for the gringos because his American father (who was in the military) was never part of his life.
As depicted in “Hands of Stone,” Duran isn’t as paranoid and outside-the-ring violent and hurtful to those who love him the most as is De Niro’s Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull” — but coming in second to that lout is no prize. This is a boxing movie where at times we find ourselves rooting AGAINST the main character when he steps into the ring. (Though to its credit, “Hands of Stone” notes it wasn’t Leonard’s proudest moment either when he taunted Duran and showboated to the point of clownish behavior when he was dominating their rematch.)
To this day, Duran insists he never said “No Mas!” (“No more!”), when he turned his back on the dominating Leonard in the eighth round of their World Welterweight Championship rematch bout in 1980 and quit in the middle of the fight, stunning the boxing world.
Duran never seemed to understand that was never the point. It wasn’t whether he SAID “No mas.” It’s that he quit.
To Duran’s credit, he did climb back into the ring, and he did win back the love of the Panamanian people and the respect of the boxing world — and then about three more movies’ worth of stuff happened in his life.
In the meantime, we have THIS movie, and as such, it’s a solid TKO.
The Weinstein Co.. presents a film written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz. Running time: 105 minutes. Rated R (for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity). Opens Friday at local theaters.