With Hands of Stone, writer/producer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz hits all the expected notes in a boxing film. The fight scenes feature the requisite slow motion, tight close-ups of sweaty bodies, and the thudding echo of each blow landed.
This is the rags-to-riches, guts-and-glory saga of Roberto Duran (Edgar Ramirez), and is appropriately steeped in a Latin flavor, given Duran’s Panamanian background. Jakubowicz, however, tends to go off into tangents that impede the film’s momentum, and relies on an incessant use of flashbacks – even during the aforementioned fight sequences – that seem arbitrary. After all, we have been watching the film up to this point. Does it really need to be re-emphasized, especially during a bout?
The heart of the film is the relationship between Duran and his trainer, Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro). It’s Ray who advises Duran, sometimes none too successfully, to concentrate on strategy instead of brute force, and to temper Duran’s arrogance, a product of his impoverished upbringing. More often than not, Roberto Duran was his own toughest opponent.
De Niro, who knows his way around a boxing ring, having won an Oscar for Raging Bull (1980) and later parrying with Sylvester Stallone in Grudge Match (2013), settles very comfortably into the role of Arcel and becomes the film’s anchor. Ramirez doesn’t necessarily resemble the real Roberto Duran – nor is Usher Raymond IV a lookalike for Duran’s rival Sugar Ray Leonard – but both have definitely buffed up for their roles, and convince as pugilists.
Gorgeous Ana de Armas (recently seen in War Dogs) plays Duran’s wife Felicidad, and Ruben Blades enjoys his largest bigscreen role in a while as Duran’s sponsor, Carlos Eleta. Ellen Barkin plays Ray’s worried wife, the ageless John Turturro turns up as a New York gangster, and Reg E. Cathey manages to make Don King more than just a cartoonish archetype. De Niro’s real-life daughter Drena also appears as Ray’s long-lost daughter, in yet another subplot that may be accurate but does little to advance the narrative.
Hands of Stone is certainly watchable and respectful, but has trouble sustaining inspiration. The film trudges along when it should soar and veers toward soap-opera when it should be concentrating on the boxing ring. It tries too hard to encompass everything, and comes up short in the end.