Hands of Stone is one of those films where it's easy to understand why everyone involved signed onto it, though it's also one of those films where you can't help wondering if everyone involved is shaking their heads wondering what exactly went wrong.
Now then, to be fair, Hands of Stone isn't an awful film and it's actually a better film than one might expect from a post-summer, pre-awards season high-drama action flick.
The film stars Edgar Ramirez (Point Break, Joy) as former WBC Welterweight champion boxer Roberto Duran, whose 1980 victory over then champion Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond) was pretty close to a complete surprise yet followed up by an even bigger surprise when Duran muttered the words "No mas" in a rematch of November that same year that returned the title to Leonard.
Written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz (Secuestro Express), Hands of Stone is a wannabe great film in search of a great script to seal the victory. Too often formulaic and even more often distracted by elements that don't add anything compelling, Hands of Stone avoids mediocrity courtesy of Ramirez's raging bordering on savage performance as the complex, narcissistic and yet emotionally wounded Duran, a man whose Panamanian pride as palpable and whose anti-American sentiment was well known and fueled an anti-Duran attitude even in a country where an underdog is quick to win us over.
Hands of Stone also benefits from one of Robert De Niro's more inspired performances in recent years as Ray Arcel, a native Hoosier who trained 18 world champion boxers during his career including Duran and, at the end of his career, Larry Holmes. De Niro successfully finds Arcel's nuances borne out of his often suspected associations with organized crime, an association that allegedly led to his vicious beating and years-long time-out from boxing. Ellen Barkin, who isn't seen on the screen nearly enough, adds a believable spark as Arcel's wife while De Niro's own adopted daughter, Drena De Niro, shows up as his onscreen daughter. Ana de Armas is fine enough in what amounts to your stereotypical boxing wife role, admittedly with a somewhat creepy schoolgirl vibe, but she's not given much to do and her scenes with Ramirez are among the film's weakest.
The film's other strong performance comes from Usher Raymond as the suave, intelligent Sugar Ray Leonard. Perhaps best known under his musical identity as Usher, Raymond has always been a gifted actor who has had difficulty finding the right project to match his talent. While Hands of Stone may not seal the deal on his acting cred, after all this is a middle-of-the-road action flick being released in August, it's a positive step forward and one can only hope that filmmakers continue to find creative projects for the actor.
Jakubowicz seems to be genuinely captivated by Duran's story here, an enthusiasm and spirit that is captured most effectively in the scenes between Ramirez and De Niro as the latter, an American trainer working with a decidedly anti-American boxer, earns the young boxer's trust and helps him channel years of rage and humiliation into the boxing ring. Jakubowicz is less convincing when he gets distracted by those story threads that are surely important to Duran's development but make for less compelling cinema, such as the film's unnecessarily delving deeply into Panamanian political history that surely helped build Duran's foundation but mostly distracts from Duran's already compelling story.
Hands of Stone isn't a brilliant film, though it's a film worth watching mostly on the strength of its performances and a renewed and rejuvenated De Niro, whose performance here practically mirrors that of the renewed and rejuvenated Arcel returning to the boxing ring long after everyone had written him off. For boxing fans, the film is perhaps an important view as it takes one of boxing history's most inexplicable moments, Duran's unfathomable "No Mas," and fleshes it out with meaning and substance.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic