Following the well-laid plans of just about every pugilistic biopic ever made (with the exception of “Raging Bull” and “The Fighter”), director Jonathan Jakubowicz with Hands of Stone, plods along (just like his subject’s boxing style) in this familiar telling of the rise of a famous boxer, in this case, Roberto Durán (Edgar Ramírez, “The Counselor”), who, according to the tagline of this picture, had more wins than Muhammad Ali and many of the sports greats.
Despite this impressive number of victories (103, to be exact), however, Manos de Piedra will most likely be remembered for two embarrassing losses, a pummeling at the hands of Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns in June 1984, and the most humiliating setback of his career when he surrendered to Sugar Ray Leonard in the “No Mas” battle in November 1980, when he found himself behind on points and suddenly quit in the eighth round.
Still, many considered him the greatest lightweight of all time, as he held world titles in four different weight classes: Lightweight (1972–79), Welterweight (1980), Light Middleweight (1983) and Middleweight (1989), the last of which was when he won the WBC Middleweight title from Iran Barkley in what is considered one of Durán’s greatest achievements (named the 1989 “Fight of the Year” by The Ring magazine). He then lost again to Leonard in a unanimous decision in a conflict which saw both fighters far past their primes (but evidently, we see more of each boxer having sex than we see them fighting for the title, this is especially disturbing).
Of course, this last bout is not even mentioned in Hands of Stone, as if to end this picture with an upbeat conclusion, while the second Leonard (played by songster Usher Raymond) debacle was a loss he blamed on eating too many “fried potatoes,” which was probably correct as the Panamanian fighter, who had just scored the biggest win of his career with a decision over Leonard six months before in Montreal, could never really handle to arduous training process and let wine, woman and song get in the way of what could have been an even more successful career.
Here, as told by Jakubowicz (who also wrote the story), like any biopic, we see the humble beginnings of the lad — abandoned by his Mexican-American father — who grew up on the tough streets of Guarare before meeting trainer Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro, “The Intern,” who, like Sylvester Stallone in “Creed,” is forced by Father Time to turn in his gloves for the wisdom of a corner man). Arcel sees something special in Durán, and soon has him on an incredible winning streak, rising in the boxing ranks as well as prominence in his country, which is portrayed as being a swill-covered slum while the issue of America’s ownership of the Panama Canal seems to have taken a front seat to everything else.
Meanwhile, Arcel has been kicked out of the sport in the U.S. because of trouble with the mob, epitomized by mafia caricature Frankie Carbo (John Turturro, “Exodus: Gods and Kings”), so this is his last shot at redemption. That’s a big theme in this film, but it seems lost in the director’s desire to film a virtual list of fights as opposed to any true character study or emotional involvement. Not to say these scenes are not worthy, in fact, the action in the ring is certainly much better than the sequences between the bouts.
Often, amidst the death scenes and love scenes (where he basically stalks a Catholic schoolgirl, Ana de Armas, “Wardogs”) and parental reunification scenes, I found myself wishing the movie would get back into the squared circle, which Jakubowicz obligingly continued to do. Although, we are not quite sure of the relationship between Arcel and Durán, considering the boxer at first wants nothing to do with the trainer, but is involved with him in the next sequence. Their onscreen chemistry is apparently awkward, as well, and it’s difficult to see many times how it really worked, considering in real life, Arcel and the fighter parted ways in the early 1980s.
All in all, however, Hands of Stone looks good and with often sweeping camera work by Miguel Ioann Littin Menz. On the acting side, while Ramírez and De Niro are adequate, look for some funny turns by Robb Skyler (“Authors Anonymous”) and a wildly bewigged Reg E. Cathey (“Fantastic Four”) as Howard Cosell and Don King, respectively. Their work here won’t win any titles, but it’s good enough to get the film to go the distance.