The most frustrating aspect of “Hands of Stone” is that somewhere in the 105 minutes of movie is a great film about Panamanian boxing legend Roberto Duran. Instead, it’s buried under far too many subplots and characters that are far more fun to be around than Duran himself.
Therein lies the biggest problem with writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s biopic: the guy that it’s all about is not a very nice fella. Duran (convincing played for roughly 20 years of life by Edgar Ramirez) spends most of the movie mouthing off to his trainer, Ray Arcel (Robert DeNiro), and his wife, Felicidad (Ana de Armas). In fact, other than his initial courtship of her, he and the screenplay treat her like nothing more than a distraction.
It makes sense because much of “Hands of Stone” is distracting. Is this a movie about the bond formed between Duran and Arcel? A tale about a difficult man to be married to? Maybe even a look at the unsteady relationship between the United States and Panama during the late 1960s to early 1980s? It briefly touches on all of this, but doesn’t dig into any one subject to be truly effective.
“Hands of Stone” does well when focusing on the parent-like relationship between Duran and Arcel, who almost convinces Duran that not all Americans are evil. There’s an odd thread regarding Arcel’s debt to a mafioso (played with subtle menace by John Turturro) which leads him to train Duran for free. While these actors make these scenes fully watchable, they seem like filler and only there to allow DeNiro to be, well, DeNiro.
The movie really hits a dead sprint during the middle section which focuses on the two fights between Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard, who is portrayed by a scene-stealing Usher Raymond. There’s a particularly dreadful deed done by Duran against Leonard’s wife that should make audiences want to see Duran lose, which is not a good thing considering this is a movie about him.
There are approximately 3,000 boxing movies and the most recent one that was a hit, “Creed”, upped the ante for in-ring cinematography. When compared to that, “Hands of Stone” tanks. There’s nothing unique about any of the fight choreography and the most impressive thing about all of it is that it’s clearly Ramirez and Raymond doing all the stunt work.
There’s also a criminal underuse of Reg E. Cathey’s portrayal of Don King. Sure, there’s no reason for King to be on screen that often as the promotor of the two Duran-Leonard fights, but one look at him in that wig should have forced Jakubowicz to find a way to work him in much more.
There are a few egregious misfires in “Hands of Stone”, one of which being another iron in Arcel’s fire in the form of a drug addict daughter (Drena DeNiro, how’d she get that gig?). The other is a montage that is initially funny, but turns a bit odd as it shows Duran winning a boxing match, having sex with Felicidad, then her pumping out a baby. It’s done in a humorous way, but after some thought seems icky, as if Jakubowicz sees her as nothing more than a baby factory.
Ramirez is a great actor who consistently shows promise (other than that “Point Break” remake) and he keeps that streak going as Duran. It’s a difficult role to play as he’s a jerk for most of the movie, but Ramirez still manages to not be totally hatable.
When he is invested in a performance, Robert DeNiro can still inhabit a character. He thankfully never gets all “DeNiro-y” and disappears into this role more than he has in any since “Silver Linings Playbook.” Also, if you can’t enjoy DeNiro spouting Yiddish slang, well, then you just don’t like movies that much.
If Jakubowicz wanted to explore all the plot lines he introduces in “Hands of Stone”, it would be a three hour movie. It doesn’t seem to know who it wants to be about: Duran or Arcel. The result is a movie that doesn’t really do either of those men or the people in their lives justice.