'Hands of Stone'
‘Hands of Stone’, Hollywood’s latest uninspired boxing melodrama, is a big, long, sweeping affair. Robert De Niro has a supporting role, just in case anyone considers that a selling point anymore.
What is it about boxing that seems to fascinate filmmakers to no end? I’m sure the one-two masterpiece whammy of ‘Rocky’ and ‘Raging Bull’ back in the day didn’t hurt. Even so, it’s not like boxing movies tend to be massive hits without some sort of connection to the ‘Rocky’ franchise. Yet these things just keep getting cranked out. The stories are all the same. The fights are generally shot in the same way. The only real differences are in which actor will be fighting against life in obvious metaphors and whether or not the movie will be based on a true story.
‘Hands of Stone’ is a bio-pic about Roberto Duran (Edgar Ramirez), a legendary boxer known best for a series of matches (and their duels) with the great Sugar Ray Leonard. A more focused film would gear in on that relationship, since it’s such an important part of boxing history. Unfortunately, this isn’t that movie. Instead, writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz decided to depict Duran’s entire life story.
There’s simply too much material here for a single movie to contain while still feeling satisfying. It starts on the streets of Panama, chronicling his tough childhood and slow salvation through boxing gloves. The movie then follows his rise to the welterweight title against Leonard, his famous fall in a rematch, and his eventual triumphant return as champion in Madison Square Garden. In between, there’s family life and politics to cover, along with some boxing-as-life metaphors, some requisite training montages, and the relationship between the boxer and his crusty trainer, Ray Arcel (De Niro). Oh, and the story comes from the perspective of Arcel, who is a bit of a boxing legend himself with his own backstory.
That’s quite a bit of ground for a movie just under two hours long to cover and you’d better believe the whole thing feels rushed and insubstantial. In theory, the big selling point here is the presence of De Niro, who made a pretty famous boxing movie that you might remember. He even provides voiceover and details his character’s relationship to the mob, which is designed to provoke nostalgia for a few other De Niro films. Admittedly, it’s fun to see the old dog get up to his famous tricks again, but like everything else in the movie there just isn’t enough screen time to cover that in any depth. John Turturro pops up as an old gangster to provide some character actor heft and threat. The actors have some fun together, but the movie never offers much of a sense that the subplot will go anywhere. It feels like window dressing.
De Niro and Turturro aren’t the only ones to provide good performances here. In fact, the whole movie is rather well acted, which only adds to the frustration. Edgar Ramirez is fantastic in the lead, diving into the boxing scenes with all his physical force. He provides a pain behind his eyes that conveys a deeper version of the character than this ho-hum standard issue bio-pic can actually hope to deliver. Ana de Armas is also strong as his wife, first with feisty flirtation, then more substantially as a troubled life partner as the couple struggles through great unrest in Panama and coping with life in the U.S. She proves to be so much better than she was allowed to be in ‘War Dogs’ and has strong screen chemistry with Ramirez throughout. Too bad everything around them feels like it was Xeroxed from other, better movies. They’re great together, but their effort feels wasted in the end.
The best thing that can be said about ‘Hands of Stone’ is that while it might ultimately be a failure, at least it failed through noble intentions. Jakubowicz certainly strived to make something big and bold. He just didn’t have enough on screen real estate to squeeze in all of his ambitions. Audiences essentially get a trilogy worth of Roberto Duran stories crammed into an hour and fifty two minutes, which can barely contain bite-sized chunks of all the interesting components of his life. It’s like reading a Wikipedia summary instead of a well-researched book and is just as unsatisfying. At least the rushed material was well cast, though. That’s not nearly enough to save the movie, but does help make it watchable as it flounders.