Hands of Stone (2016)
Release Date: August 26th, 2016 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Jonathan Jakubowicz Actors: Edgar Ramirez, Robert De Niro, Ana de Armas, Ellen Barkin, John Turturro, Usher Raymond, Ruben Blades, Drena De Niro
n 1971, Roberto Duran (Edgar Ramirez) fights at Madison Square Garden – an incredible accomplishment at a notable venue, considering Duran’s humble origins. The eventual lightweight champion’s story is narrated by his legendary trainer, Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro), a man who helped thousands of boxers master the sport, and who now must teach the kid strategy and discipline to become a true winner. And taking into account De Niro’s own expertise with boxing movies, it’s difficult not to trust everything he says about the up-and-comer. But despite star power, a respectable budget, and suitable performances, the film is an utter failure when it comes to visual style, technical execution, and storytelling.
The first problem is the narrative, which alternates between the past and the present, hoping to shed some light on the traumatic events that shaped each player. But it goes too far, wasting time on Arcel’s personal drama (including estrangement from a daughter) while also focusing pointlessly on the supporting characters that interact with him. This should be Duran’s story, but quite routinely, it pays unnecessary attention to Arcel, promoter Carlos Eleta (Ruben Blades), wiseguy Frankie Carbo (John Turturro), childhood pal Chaflan (Oscar Jaenada), and even the primary opponent, Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond). This is especially detrimental when Duran inevitably falls from grace; it allows the audience to lose interest in – and concern for – the antihero at the heart of it all, since there are so many other characters to follow. Even Roberto’s wife Felicidad (Ana de Armas) is more sympathetic and believable (she’s also featured in the only amusing scene, involving pleasurable intercourse that shifts into torturous childbirth).
All of the cutting back and forth in the timeline is dreadfully commonplace – as well as irritating – lending to the feeling that this biographical yarn is so familiar and cliched that twisting up its chronology must surely confuse audiences into thinking that it’s modern and fresh. This leads into the second problem: “Hands of Stone” quickly becomes a history lesson disguised as a boxing movie.The 1964 Panama Canal Zone rioting was a significant, potent piece of a longstanding territorial conflict, but it just doesn’t fit seamlessly into a film about Duran’s rise and fall in the ring. The idea of fighting his whole life becomes comically downplayed when he’s shown to literally begin streetfighting as a preteen on the poverty-ridden streets of El Chorrillo, before receiving more formal training by a coach at a local gym. And then there’s time for a love story, which follows the typical course of recklessness with wealth and eventually drunken abuse.
It’s not enough to be an inspirational sports drama anymore – and definitely not when it comes to boxing, which has seen a tremendous quantity of theatrical efforts in the last few years alone. Just like Duran’s immoral choices when it comes to psychological warfare and his motives for controversially (and famously) stopping his rematch against Leonard (depicted here to involve unscrupulous actions by a greedy agent and a mental defeat rather than overconfident slacking), “Hands of Stone” seems to have been made for all the wrong reasons. At times it’s a bit of patriotic propaganda for Panama (it regularly resembles advertising or promotion instead of entertainment); at others it’s an account of a detestable athlete, incapable of handling riches and celebrity – and certainly written poorly enough that he’s irredeemable as a hero (a penultimate redemption bout is portrayed to be painfully trivial). Audiences are also supposed to believe (inconceivably) that this hotheaded brute used superior intelligence to distract his nemesis, rather than merely spitting out insults in the heat of the moment.
In its hastiness to chronicle the singular Panamanian star, the film also can’t be bothered with acceptable editing and structuring techniques; fades, cuts, fight choreography, and transitions betray severely amateurish efforts. Sequences are included out of expectation, not creativity; training montages, the segueing of rounds, and even sex/nudity appear because the filmmakers think these moments are anticipated – or required. For viewers unaware of the 1980 “Brawl in Montreal” and the rematch that followed later in the same year, “Hands of Stone” at least presents an unexpected (though not entirely satisfying) third option to that age-old dilemma of any pugilist showdown: the protagonist can only win or lose, and both choices have been previously, repeatedly committed to celluloid.
– Mike Massie