HANDS OF STONE (2016), the new movie about welterweight boxing champion Roberto Duran, is one of those movies that I probably liked more than I should have. It’s not really getting great reviews, and it’s receiving zero hype, but I loved it. For me, everyhing about this movie worked.
Maybe that means I’m just a sucker for boxing movies. Or perhaps it’s just a really good movie.
HANDS OF STONE is told from the perspective of legendary boxing trainer Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro). And if there’s one weakness to this movie, it’s that at times there’s a bit too much of Arcel’s voice-over narration, as it shows up in places where it’s not necessary, where standard dialogue and visual narrative would have sufficed.
And so we learn right from the get-go that Roberto Duran changed Ray Arcel’s life, as we hear it directly from Arcel’s mouth. We meet Duran as a child in poverty-stricken Panama, and we see through his young eyes his disdain for the United States, which he views as an oppressor nation. Amazingly, he convinces a local boxing trainer to train him, and so he’s boxing pretty much as a child.
We next see Duran (Edgar Ramirez) as a young man wooing the beautiful Felicidad Iglesias (Ana de Armas) who he’ll eventually marry. Duran is introduced to the wealthiest man in Panama, businessman Carlos Eleta (Ruben Blades), who in turn introduces Duran to trainer Ray Arcel, knowing that Arcel has what it takes to make Duran a champion.
But their union is not an easy one. Duran wants no part of an American trainer, and while Ray clearly recognizes Duran’s talent, he’s prohibited by the mob from ever making money off boxing again. Years earlier, Ray tried to convince mobster Frankie Carbo (John Turturro) to loosen his grip on boxing in New York City, so they could branch out into the television market. Carbo said no, Ray went ahead anyway, and Carbo arranged to have Ray killed. Ray survived, but he promised never again to make money off boxing, and in return, the mob let him live.
Ray solves his own personal problem by agreeing to train Duran for free, and Duran also changes his mind, setting the stage for a championship run. Standing in their way is American superstar boxer Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond). Duran sees beating Leonard as his chance not only to become champion but also to earn Panama the respect of the world and to humiliate the United States in the process.
And the more success Duran achieves, the more he’s swallowed up by big money boxing, falling victim to its lure in ways he never fell in the ring, even as aging Ray Arcel continually fights to protect him.
HANDS OF STONE tells a rousing story, one that I enjoyed a lot since I didn’t know much about Roberto Duran other than the results of his two championship fights with Sugar Ray Leonard.
The cast here is wonderful. Edgar Ramirez shines in the lead role as Roberto Duran. He makes Duran a volatile force who is as undisciplined and hotheaded as he is talented. Indeed, some of the best parts of HANDS OF STONE aren’t the boxing sequences, which certainly are done very well, but the scenes between Ramirez and De Niro in the corners of the ring. De Niro’s Ray Arcel is constantly fighting with Ramirez’s Duran trying to get him to follow his wisdom, which Duran often sees as limiting, as he just wants to let loose and pound his opponent. Some of these verbal spars are more intense than the physical ones in the ring.
Likewise, Ramirez also shares powerful scenes with Ruben Blades’ Carlos Eleta. And when the three of them are on screen together, watch out. The verbal punches fly.
Ramirez captures the energy and charm of Duran and makes him watchable throughout. I really enjoyed Ramirez in last year’s JOY (2015) where he played Joy’s (Jennifer Lawrence) husband, in a film that also paired him with Robert De Niro. Ramirez also played the priest in the underwhelming horror movie DELIVER US FROM EVIL (2014). As much as I liked Ramirez in JOY, he’s even better here in HANDS OF STONE.
Robert De Niro is excellent as Ray Arcel. It’s fun to see De Niro in a role that does not hide his age but actually makes him look older with a receding hairline and whispery white hair. He also enjoys some of the best scenes in the movie, with riveting dialogue, as he teaches Duran his philosophy of boxing— always have a strategy and stick to it— and as he argues with Carlos Eleta. Ray Arcel represents the pure side of boxing, the sport, while Eleta represents what Arcel sees as destroying boxing: big money.
Ruben Blades, who plays Daniel Salazar, one of the best character on TV’s FEAR THE WALKING DEAD, is also very good as Carlos Eleta. He brings Ray Arcel into Duran’s world not only to make Duran a champion but to give him some discipline, because Eleta is always fending off the youthful Duran who refuses to respect the rich businessman.
Ana de Armas, who we just saw in WAR DOGS (2016), is drop dead gorgeous and sexy as Duran’s wife Felicidad. De Armas enjoys a more substantial role here in HANDS OF STONE than she had in WAR DOGS, a role that enables her to show more range and depth, and she doesn’t disappoint.
Singer Usher Raymond makes for a dashingly handsome Sugar Ray Leonard, and he displays the fleeting and fancy footwork of the boxing superstar with seeming ease. John Turturro makes the most of his few scenes as mobster Frankie Carbo who in spite of their differences really respects and likes Ray Arcel and eventually helps him get the shunned Duran his comeback bout. Reg E. Cathey, a talented character actor with tons of credits, recently seen as Cajun cook Freddy on the TV show HOUSE OF CARDS, plays Don King and enjoys some memorable moments in some key scenes as the legendary boxing promoter.
It was also nice to see Ellen Barkin play Ray’s wife Stephanie, in a performance that reminded me of Gena Rowlands back in the day. And in a neat bit of casting, De Niro’s real life adopted daughter Drena De Niro plays Ray’s drug addicted daughter here.
HANDS OF STONE was written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz. This is Jakubowicz’s first feature film, and it’s an impressive debut. For my money, everything in this movie worked.
The fight sequences are well done, riveting and exciting. The photography is lively and energetic, and the editing is quick and efficient. The film is nearly two hours long, yet it flies by.
Even better than the fight scenes are the scenes of dialogue between Ramirez, De Niro, and Blades. Jakubowicz also gives the movie an authentic Latin American feel, as well as capturing perfectly the time period of the 1970s and 1980s.
And Jakubowicz does a nice job with the controversial and perhaps signature moment of Duran’s career, where he infamously declared “No mas!” in the ring and walked away from boxing, words that to this day the real Duran swears he didn’t say, yet it’s what he’s most remembered for.
HANDS OF STONE is getting very little hype and meager critical recognition, which is a shame because it’s a rousing entertaining movie that tells the story of Roberto Duran, one of the most talented boxers ever to step into the boxing ring.
There’s no split decision here. HANDS OF STONE is a clear knockout.