Movie Review: ‘HANDS OF STONE’ throws no new punches

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Jared McMillan // Film Critic

HANDS OF STONE | 105 min | R
Director: Jonathan Jakubowicz
Cast: Edgar Ramírez, Usher Raymond, Robert De NiroAna de Armas and John Turturro

Boxing movies have a certain formula. The main character is someone who needs to fight in order to survive, making money with his/her fists as means for this survival. It gives the audience someone to see as an underdog and root for their success, as they train and scrap their way to glory. Fighting, of course, is both what drives the plot and a metaphor for the essence of the main character.

The brilliance though of the boxing formula is that sometimes it isn’t a formula; it is an actualization of someone’s struggle to becoming a boxing legend. More often than not these make for the best boxing movies. One of their main points of success is to have a grounded reality, either by infusing historical significance to heighten the setting (such as ALI or CINDERELLA MAN) or showing the aftermath of success (RAGING BULL).

HANDS OF STONE, the latest entry in the subgenre, tries to follow in the footsteps of the movies that came before it, but gets lost going down the same path.

In a movie that is marketed to be about the life of Roberto Duran, it’s quick to let the audience know, by way of voiceover, that it is about Roberto Duran (Edgar Ramirez) and his relationship with Ray Arcel (Robert DeNiro) as both trainer and father figure. The story is drawn to have both people mirror each other in their struggle with anonymity; Duran wants to not be another statistic of poverty in Panama, Arcel wants to gain his profession back after being exiled by the mob.

Before Duran and Arcel become acquainted, the story shifts to Duran’s beginnings, before he was known as Manos de Piedra, or “Hands of Stone.” He is a little boy in Panama, scrounging for food amidst the turmoil between the U.S. and Panama with regard to possession of the Panama Canal. After seeing him in a street fight, Plomo (Pedro Perez) decides to train him in his gym, where he eventually becomes revered in his country years later.

Edgar Ramirez (in gloves) stars as Roberto Duran with Robert De Niro as trainer. Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company.

Edgar Ramirez (in gloves) stars as Roberto Duran with Robert De Niro as trainer. Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company.

Arcel eventually gets wind of Duran by way of his local promoter, Carlos Eleta (Ruben Blades), and Duran reluctantly accepts him. Arcel agrees to fight him for free, since the mob said if he ever makes a dime off boxing again, they will kill him. Initially, there is tension due to Duran’s despise of Americans stemming from the continuing struggle of Panama. Arcel, rather than trying to change Duran, incorporates his lessons, teaching him to strategize; boxing is a game of patience and execution, and being all aggression will make you lose at some point.

For a movie that starts with DeNiro talking about footwork, it sure can’t find the right pace or footing. Written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz (his American debut), the movie is a constant barrage of biographical highlights with no continuity. The lack of continuity doesn’t necessarily mean the story isn’t linear, but rather it juggles multiple subplots that have no impact, and hinders its identity. There are fragments of historical, action, and drama held together by the biographical traits.

As it moves through Duran’s life, HANDS OF STONE just skips beats to show the benchmarks of his career, which leaves everything lacking. It doesn’t really acknowledge his progression up the weight classes to get to Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond), or the other championships prior to it. They lose sight of his internal struggle that it had built up in the beginning. You realize there is a battle in his mind, but they shy away from it.

The relationship between Duran and his love, Felicidad (Ana de Armas, who steals the show with fiery grace) is something waivers on necessary and unnecessary. While biopics do have that romance to keep them grounded for the audience, it is another subplot thrown into the mix. This is further complicated by gratuitous love scenes with a 28-year old actress that can look like a teenager, paired with a 39-year old actor who looks a 39-year old playing a teenager.

All of these elements complicate what would have been a great story to tell. Boxing fans, or even sports fans in general, know of Duran/Leonard II, a.k.a. No Mas. Amidst all of the moving parts, there is reason built to make Duran quit the fight. Luckily, this is not the end of the movie. HANDS OF STONE sees the relationship between trainer/fighter until it’s finality, so there’s a victory felt in the end. However, it’s just OK, not a K.O.

HANDS OF STONE opens nationwide on Friday, August 26.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.