Hands of Stone has the look and feel that it wants to be a great boxing movie. It wants to be loved and adored by those who view it. Yet it reduces itself to textbook sports biopic cliches, and never reaches for the greatness it seeks to achieve.
The true story of Roberto Duran is one that is intriguing and worthy of a cinematic adaptation. But under the helm of Jonathan Jakubowicz, who’s directing his first feature since 2005’s Secuestro Express, it comes across as a rehash of every other boxing movie – or sports movie for that matter.
Hands of Stone focuses on how Duran (Edgar Ramirez) went from being a regular street fighter in Panama to beating the undefeated Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond) for the welterweight championship. Trained by retired boxer Eddie Arcel (Robert De Niro), the hotheaded Duran loses his cool shortly after his victory and becomes a shell of his former self. So, when Leonard wants a rematch, Duran has to get back into shape – even though he despises the idea of going against Leonard again.
In between the bouts and training are subplots that focus on both Duran and Arcel. Duran gets married and has a bunch of kids; Arcel has a deal with the mob (led by John Turturro). There’s a lot that Hands of Stone wants to say about its two main protagonists, but it’s never given enough time to say it. A lot of it is just forced in and rushed out to make way for the rest of the story.
Nearly everything in Hands of Stone comes off as standard. The fight scenes are pedestrian. The cinematography goes for that glossy, over-produced look that last most biopics have. The music sounds like it was lifted from another film. It’s all of what you expect in your average biopic, which I was hoping this wouldn’t become.
When it comes time in which the viewer is supposed to cheer for Duran, it’s difficult to do so. The film tries to paint him as only being a heroic icon, which – to most – he is, and yet it also focuses on how his arrogance overpowers him in more than one situation. These little outbursts are treated as some kind of miscues that Duran had, and we’re supposed to feel sorry for him when things go bad. Hands of Stone may have worked if it had gone the deep, character study that Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull had taken. But with what it does here by trying to be uplifting, a lot of the material doesn’t exactly work.
With all the issues the film has, what does work is the actors that are involved. Ramirez is quite strong as Duran, and the chemistry he and De Niro share is a treat to watch. De Niro almost seems to be too obvious of a casting choice at first, but he really shines as Arcel. Even Usher does exceptional work as Sugar Ray Leonard.
It’s a shame that Hands of Stone reduces itself to retreads rather than go its own way. Given that the acting is strong, the material should have been up to the same level. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.