HANDS OF STONE Review

More than anything Hands of Stone is frustrating because there is clearly a large scale to the film and real ambition from both writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz and the entire cast, but as is true with many a biopics Hands of Stone tries to do and tell its audience too much in too short a time span inadvertently making the film more about a series of events than the characters participating in those events. In theory this is supposed to be a movie about the relationship between Panamanian boxer Roberto Durán (Edgar Ramírez) and legendary trainer Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro) and while this goal is communicated well enough and understood there are so many extraneous things going on around the two central characters the film becomes distracted by its own plot strands. The word I'm looking for is "scattershot." Hands of Stone is a broad strokes approach to the biopic, but in being so it communicates such key elements in haphazard ways thus forcing the audience to not invest as much as they should or even want to. Granted, the film does certain things right as this viewer in particular had no prior knowledge of Durán or his story yet I was immediately interested in the real life events the film was depicting. That is all to say the film is a little all over the place. This especially becomes true after the film effortlessly builds to Durán's first bout with Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond) and completes that fight within the first hour of the film. While the film could have certainly told us all we needed to know about Durán through the lens of his Sugar Ray fights and all of the drama those entailed Hands of Stone instead feels the need to go further by not only telling us Durán's story as a boxer, but his story as a Panamanian activist, Arcel's story that deals with the New York City mob and a long-lost daughter even going as far to include Leonard's perspective on certain things. Add in the familial drama that Durán creates and deals in with wife Felicidad Iglesias (Ana de Armas) and their five children and there is enough material here for an HBO miniseries. Unfortunately, Hands of Stone is a feature film that clocks in under two hours and while it carries real momentum in the first hour leading up to that first showdown with Sugar Ray that energy is largely lost in the second half of the film leaving us with a movie that might have been something really special and unique did it not try so desperately to adhere to the worn-out sports drama template.

We begin in September of 1971 when Durán fought Benny Huertas in his first fight at Madison Square Garden. It's the first fight De Niro's Arcel sees of Durán's and we are told via narration that it was during a few mere seconds within this fight that Durán changed Arcel's life. This comes to be due to the fact that Arcel was once the most successful trainer in the sport before he tried to expand boxing to be more than just a New York sport with the introduction of televisions in every home in America. By doing so Arcel upset the New York mob (which is personified here by John Turturro) who put out a hit on him and when he survived threatened to put another hit out on him were he to ever make another cent off boxing. We're told all of this through efficient flashbacks just as we're told the origin of Durán's hatred towards Americans through the fight over the rights to Panama Canal in the early sixties. It also doesn't help that his father was an American who abandoned his mother with a handful of children. This is all to say that it is at first difficult for Durán to accept advice and training from a pure-blooded American from Harlem like Arcel. I'm not sure if I missed something, but I don't think the movie ever makes it clear exactly what persuaded Durán to accept the training either other than his manager's constant insisting that Arcel would make him a world champion. And so, as the Arcel/Durán relationship is founded the film then moves into more of the formulaic sports movie moments, but it would be false to say much of them didn't work. In fact, Jakubowicz brings real flair to his direction here. The shots are well-composed in that there is an artistry to them rather than simply being a two shot or single during conversations and wide shot during the boxing matches. For instance, the boxing matches themselves are some of the most kinetic I've seen on screen and I enjoyed both Southpaw and CREED last year for their efforts in making their fights distinctive and intense. Here, Jakubowicz uses lots of 360° dolly shots around the ring to really capture the atmosphere and scope of the fight while utilizing more the sound design than the actual imagery to put the audience in the midst of these brutal battles. We hear the cracking of the bones, the stretching of the muscles and of course, the harshness of the impact all of which lends a visceral feeling to these moments rather than allowing us to step back and question the point of two grown men beating the crap out of one another for a living.

Roberto Durán (Edgar Ramírez) goes up against Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond) for the first time on June 20, 1980.
There is a lot to like about Hands of Stone-enough in fact that I wanted to like it more than I ended up doing. Durán could be an arrogant S.O.B. and we don't necessarily like him some of the time, but Ramírez as Durán is downright captivating. The Venezuelan actor blends this arrogance and stubbornness that always seem to go hand in hand with a brazen sense of humor and a lust for ice cream that is nothing if not endearing. We know that Durán's confidence is also backed up by the fact he can walk the walk without hesitation and so there is always a certain amount of understanding when, say, Durán insults Leonard's wife Juanita (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) because despite what he says being rude and unnecessary we know the true intent behind it and that Durán can back up his reasoning for doing such things. De Niro is equally as solid if not as showy in his role as Arcel. This is honestly one of the more subdued roles the veteran actor has played in some time and it gives audiences the chance to appreciate what made De Niro so effective in the first place. One can see the small touches he adds here and there with Arcel, the subtle nuances that allow viewers into the mind of this character without speaking a line of dialogue ultimately lending the key relationship between these two men-one a talker the other a stoic teacher-the ability to convey the necessary means to achieve what Durán hopes to do from the beginning: to continue moving up in life without ever losing sight of who he was in the beginning. Of course, the film must go through the requisite downfall which Durán experiences at the beginning of the eighties when the fame and money begin to get the better of him and his family, but what makes this different in Hands of Stone is the fact it shows us how little Durán came from and that he more or less deserves this time to enjoy what he earned after his first fight with Leonard. Durán wants to bask in his success, but due to the greed of man and the business of boxing he is never really allowed to do so.

This caveat of feeling Durán has a right to his ecstasy provides some interesting commentary on the state of what boxing had become at the time and still remains in that it is more show business with blood than a sporting event that cares about its athletes. Usher's Leonard is anxious to schedule a re-match and promoter Don King (Reg E. Cathey) promises Durán's manager, Carlos Eleta (Rubén Blades), $8 million for the fight-more than any boxer had been paid at that point-leaving Eleta to coax his fighter into agreeing to the fight even if Durán might have been drunk and partying when he did so. Sure, Durán and Leonard would have eventually fought again regardless, but as quick as they actually did? Doubtful. It would have happened more on Durán's terms had he had his own way and it certainly wouldn't have ended the way it did. Which brings us to what might be the most interesting aspect of the movie in that despite Durán being more than worthy of his own biopic his life story or better yet the highlights of that story don't necessarily lend themselves well to the three act structure Hollywood loves so much. Were this to work out better for Jakubowicz's script the first Leonard fight would have been the climax-the peak that Durán had been working for all his life (which, in reality, kind of was given it happened in both of these fighters prime). The re-match would have gone accordingly and been coordinated as much on Durán's terms as Leonard's which may or may not have turned out the same. In all likelihood-it should have been an end title card before the credits rolled instead of the second half of the film that caused a second lapse into excess this time with a more depressing edge to it that leaves Durán's comeback to be based on a fight with an upcoming twenty-four year old Davey Moore (Israel Isaac Duffus) that isn't nearly as triumphant as the movie wants it to be. In that Durán's story doesn't submit itself so willingly to that three act structure one might imagine it would allow the film to be a more insightful and interesting take on a clearly complex character who is operating within this complex circus of a world where the film can analyze the lead character and why they made such an impression on the sport just as much as the sport itself which was transitioning from looking at these athletes as heroes and gods-men who were fighting for honor and pride-to that of pawns subjected to ridiculous antics for nothing other than profit.              

Legendary trainer Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro) remains a constant in Durán's corner throughout Hands of Stone
Unfortunately, Jakubowicz's ambitions don't seem to reach this far and thus we are left with more of a chronological telling of Durán's life and times from the aforementioned first fight at the Garden with necessary flashbacks up through 1983 where his story of redemption would be complete by winning his third divisional crown on his birthday in the same arena where he'd won his first title a decade earlier. That may sound like the storybook ending the movie wants it to be, but in the way Jakubowicz chooses to convey as much it simply doesn't hit you in that final sequence the way one hopes a boxing movie will. Jakubowicz finds humor and creativeness in editing choices such as going from a sensual sex scene to Durán leaning forward with anxiety in the delivery room. Jakubowicz even uses as old a trick as the montage to relay more facets of our protagonist as he chronicles the births of Durán's many children and his inclination to name each of them after himself. These are funny, revealing, even inspiring moments that show us what Hands of Stone could have been were it all as focused and well thought-out as certain scenes and sequences. Then there are sloppy instances such as when Jakubowicz chooses to jump from a child actor portraying Durán at fourteen to Ramírez (who is actually thirty-nine) playing him at the age of twenty. It's not so much that this couldn't work, but that Jakubowicz has a (at the very least) thirty year-old looking Ramírez hitting on this school-age girl in Felicidad who walks around in her uniform looking as innocent as she probably was at the time. Things level out when we jump forward to the end of the seventies, but even in 1983 when Durán makes his comeback of sorts he was only thirty-two. It is all rather jarring and only adds confusion whereas the decision to include certain storylines are so out of left field that they undermine all the good the movie had done thus far. I tend to accept what true story movies tell me as I like to believe they've chosen to convey said events in the best way for the format in which they're being told, but even in this regard Hands of Stone made me stop and wonder who Durán was fighting in the ten year interim in which the montage takes place-between his defeat of Ken Buchanan in 1982 for the WBA lightweight title and his first bout with Leonard-that kept him atop the boxing world. If you're fully entertained and engrossed by a film such thoughts shouldn't occur.

Hands of Stone seemingly has a lot it wants to say. Jakubowicz places a lot of emphasis on where Durán comes from and his pride in his country and the people he represents, but never is it clear exactly what point the writer/director is trying to make. What he does make clear is that Leonard, the symbol of America and its padded indulgences, doesn't deserve the title as much as the man who came from nothing does. Whether this is true or not it is funny how American history forgets someone such as Durán in that Sugar Ray Leonard is a staple of the sport of boxing from the perspective of a millennial whereas I hadn't heard of Durán prior to seeing this film. Granted I'm not a huge sports buff and admittedly know very little about boxing in particular, but I couldn't help but wonder how integral Durán might be in a Leonard biopic were one to be made given the fights with that very American boxer and their eventual friendship are highlights here. What we come to have with Jakubowicz's Hands of Stone though is a boxing movie that makes clear why sometimes certain sports stories don't make great sports movies. Boxing is like the Marvel Cinematic Universe in that the winners are never winners for very long and it's never really over. Something or someone new will come along eventually and this biopic simply isn't sure how to manage that reality. The film has what could have been a weighty and substantial conclusion if not necessarily a wholly fitting one, but instead it feels the need to adhere to that familiar formula and thus must go on to give us the redemption story as packed into a twenty-five rushed minutes. I wouldn't have minded the film being longer even, were it to dive deeper into these aspects of Durán's life that might help us understand why and how he became the man he was when he faced Leonard the first time and that would become even more telling given the circumstances surrounding their re-match, but by operating in those broad strokes there is plenty of action without so much significance.