Hands of Stone
by George Wolf
Early in Hands of Stone, legendary boxing trainer Ray Arcel (Robert DeNiro) is schooling future legendary boxer Roberto Duran (Edgar Ramirez) on technique versus strategy. The film tells us there are vital differences, then shows us these differences aren’t just in the ring.
Like a fighter too caught up in the moment to remember the plan, the film boasts solid fundamentals but employs a tired strategy while exploring more openings than it can safely land.
Duran was born in Panama, rising to stardom against a backdrop of poverty and political unrest in his homeland. So of course his story is told from the old white guy’s point of view. Trainers are a natural element in boxing movies, true, but anchoring this one with Arcel is just bad strategy. I mean, Mickey was great at telling us that women weaken legs, but he never altered the long game: telling Rocky’s story.
Writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s respect for Duran is evident, and sincere enough to not shy away from some of the unflattering aspects of Duran’s past. Equal confidence that his story could be told on its own terms would have been welcome. Ramirez rises above it with a terrific performance, capturing the early hunger and eventual crash of a gifted champion who often seemed plagued by contradictions.
DeNiro brings a nicely underplayed grace to the wise narrator’s role while Ana de Armas is dynamic as Duran’s wife Felicidad, showing her recent one-note role in War Dogs was a complete waste of both time and talent.
The fine performances do much to keep the film grounded as it struggles to find a consistent voice. Jakubowicz wants us to understand the social, political and familial forces that nagged Duran, but also lament how great boxing used to be and appreciate Duran’s rivalry with Sugar Ray Leonard (nicely done Usher Raymond).
It’s a crowded narrative, even before Arcel’s own family dramas and mob connections come to call.
Hands of Stone shows admirable heart and strong technique, but is often derailed by scattershot focus and a questionable strategy. Call it a split decision.