Synopsis – The legendary Roberto Duran and his equally legendary trainer Ray Arcel change each other’s lives.
My Take – Don’t we all just love boxing films? Well I know I do. Even though the formula behind sports films remain the same i.e the rise, the fall & the resurrection, recent films such as Southpaw and Creed prove there is much more territory to explore and more hearts to be won in this genre, provided a good story is to be told. Some viewers – particularly those who are not fans of this engaging sport might be put off by the idea of this film as “just another boxing film” but they shouldn’t be. By mixing politics and national pride with standard sports clichés, director Jonathan Jakubowicz gives us an engaging biography of the Panamanian boxer Roberto Durán. Roberto Durán is widely remembered for that infamous moment at the Louisiana Superdome on Nov. 25, 1980, where he called it quits in his rematch title defense against Sugar Ray Leonard, reportedly bowing out with the phrase “No más” (no more). Did he actually utter those words? What brought him to that mental space of quitting? And how did he recover afterward? Robert Duran is considered one of the greatest boxers in history (I had to some research), but to some fight fans (and others who have only a passing familiarity with the sport like me), he will always be defined by two words: “No mas.” Those words stopped Duran’s second fight with Sugar Ray Leonard cold in 1980. Duran always has claimed he never uttered them; even if he didn’t, legend has overtaken the story. This film is out to show us that there is more to him than that controversial juncture, what led up to the moment and what came after.
The story follows Roberto Duran, who grew up on the streets of the Guararé District in the Los Santos Province in Panama. As a kid (David Arosemena), he lived with his mother and siblings in poverty. Due to America’s occupancy of their land & the abandonment of his American born father, Duran begins to hate America and everything it stands for. In order to channel his rage, Duran finds refuge in the sport of boxing. Initially fighting on the street for money, Duran begins training at the Neco de La Guardia Gym to become a world champion. As a young man (Edgar Ramirez), gets a big break when he meets a wealthy local named Carlos Eleta (Rubén Blades) who backs him and helps him set up professional fights. His next stroke of luck is Eleta enlisting the aid of a Jewish boxing trainer Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro), who coached more than 2,000 fighters. The one hiccup with Arcel is that he has promised a local mafia don (John Turturro) that he will not train again, for money. So he tiptoes around that pledge by working with Durán for free. Arcel, being a philosophical trainer, adds a big picture strategy to Durán’s sledgehammer fists. Their record of success together is amazing, which earns them a match against the very popular American Boxer Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond). Before they even step into the ring, Durán gets into Leonard’s head by insulting his wife Juanita (Jurnee Smollett-Bell). Durán is egged on by his spouse Felicidad (Ana de Armas), who tells him: “Destroy their idol and make them respect Panama.” As the big fight approaches, both men are ready for a brawl. Doing a film of this nature, a couple of questions arise. How do you accurately and intimately make a film about the life and times of Roberto Duran who in addition to being a legend was also a legendary pre-fight s**t talker? How can one best encapsulate the real life of a man who at one point was the guiding light of an entire nation yet had enough of an ego to name all of his male heirs Roberto? Finally, how do you do make that film great while siphoning off of cues and themes from inspirations like Rocky (1976) and Raging Bull (1980)? The answer is of course you can’t; but you can make a half-way decent film out of everything. And that’s basically what director Jonathan Jakubowicz has done. It plods its course, steadily paces itself, jab at the appropriate emotional moments and ducks from the energy-sucking episodic plot-lines that tend to usually drown the audience into sleep. Writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s script sticks to an easy-to-comprehend, chronological order: Childhood. Adolescent flirtation and first romance with his future wife. Professional life. Career-ending default. Shame. And resurgence. Editor Ethan Maniquis lines up scenes, cuts the fat and ties things up nicely in 105 minutes. The film takes an in-depth look at an imperfect man who was a near perfect boxer. He focuses on the emotional state of a young boy who was abandoned by his father and also angry because Americans occupied his country. Durán’s love/hate relationship with the US follows him into adulthood. The hostility and inner turmoil he feels is evidenced on the screen: The chip on his shoulder. Self-indulgent debauchery. Demeaning other men’s wives. Yet that same volatile attitude is the fuel he burned in the ring as he pummeled opponents. Heck even the balance of languages (English and Spanish) is respectfully and organically done. If a great film is three great scenes and no bad ones, then the film is 50% of the way there. Yet much like the underrated Southpaw (2015), it also has no pivotal, never forget scenes or iconic lines.
The brightly colored barrios of Panama City and the glitzy sparkle of Las Vegas, not to mention the atmospherics of locker rooms inexplicably filled with smoke, don’t really leave an impact. Neither do the stakes of Duran’s life which, much like Billy Hope’s, was and probably still is filled with conflict, inner-turmoil and a pride that manifests in nationalistic fervor. It’s a shame too because if the film decided to explore that aspect of Duran’s life, i.e. his relationship to Panama and its people, it could have been unique enough to recommend strongly. Director Jakubowicz falls into a lot of the sports-film and biopic pitfalls. Watching Ramirez‘ Durán go from fighting trim to bloated success is depressingly familiar, as are the rags-to-riches scenes. (Do rich wives always have to dress in tacky tight purple pants, the way de Armas does here?) The fight scenes are explosive, particularly when Durán’s brute force runs up against Leonard’s speed — and Raymond‘s dance skills are put to good use emulating Leonard’s fast footwork. Unlike the Rocky franchise, where the fight sequences were the highlight of the films and ate up much of the screen time, the four fights included in this film are fully fleshed out for fight fans, but take up a surprisingly small percentage of the 111 minute run time. Those scenes, and the political overtones, carry the film past the clichés into some gripping drama. The film is shot in a quick pace where there seems to be constant action or something going on. It’s not slow or draining. It’s made to entertain, not necessarily fixate on the boxing story or smaller details. I’m okay with that. The film paints Duran in an honest light. They show the charitable side of him, as well as the out-of-control aggressive side. It doesn’t play a side to give Duran a positive image. It doesn’t force you to root for him or hate him. I actually found myself rooting for Leonard due to the antics of Duran. The far more compelling relationship comes each time Arcel combs Durán’s hair between rounds, overcoming his pupil’s initial mistrust to earn his respect with the realization that not all Americans are out to get him. Performance wise, as expected Robert DeNiro steals the show as an aging vet with nothing to lose, depicted in his interactions with wife Stephanie (Ellen Barkin) and Brooklyn mob boss Frankie Carbo (John Turturro), who destroyed his boxing career and nearly left him for dead before reaching a gentleman’s agreement to leave him alone as long as he doesn’t make another cent from boxing. Its good to see back in form making us forget he recently starred in a film called Dirty Grandpa. Edgar Ramirez is excellent here. He captures Duran’s hunger, literal and figurative, as well as his arrogance and fear. Ramirez’s performance helps Duran look more as a sympathetic character than the rude, outrageous and occasionally violent braggart portrayed in sports media, without glossing out his severe character flaws. The gorgeous and talented Ana de Armas puts in a surprisingly vibrant performance as his wife, helping to shape Duran’s adult years throughout their troubled but eventually successful life together. While its hard to take Usher seriously the moment he appears on the screen. He eventually grows on you thanks to his sincere performance. John Turturro is solid and dead-on as Frankie Carbo. Reg E. Cathey is likable in a cameo. Ruben Blades, Pedro Perez and Oscar Jaenada play their parts well. With such a high bar set by previous films of the genre, critics will definitely dock points from this film for its standard formula. But I must say this is a valiant effort to bring an untold story on screen. On the whole, ‘Hands of Stone’ is an engrossing and compelling watch, which despite its flaws, can be termed as a decent boxing film.
Directed – Jonathan Jakubowicz
Rated – R
Run Time – 111 minutes