Movie review: ‘Hands of Stone’ biopic needs to be leaner
Boxing movies are made for boxing fans. But there are also people who need a good story or character study to go along with that. Hollywood has produced plenty of films with both ingredients, from much lauded ones such as “Raging Bull” and “Rocky” to lesser known gems like “The Set-Up.”
“Hands of Stone” is the biopic of Roberto Duran, whose boxing career spanned three decades, starting in the 1970s. The film has got plenty of those ingredients, as Duran, played here by Edgar Ramirez (“Point Break”) proves to be quite a character, ranging in mood and personality from sympathetic to rude and hot-tempered. There’s also a great, understated performance from Robert De Niro as the legendary boxing trainer Ray Arcel who, as Duran’s manager Carlos Eleta (Ruben Blades) promised the green but gifted fighter, made him a world champ.
As far as excitement, this film takes no back seat to others that have placed cameras in the ring. Action and cinematography mesh when Duran goes up against various adversaries. You can practically feel the blows as they make contact, as well as the exhaustion emanating from the fighters.
That’s all good. But Venezuelan writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz seems to be letting ambition get in the way of his own talent level. While the film would have worked well as a straightforward story of Duran’s scrappy beginnings, his rise under the wing of Arcel, and the problems he eventually faced due to his oversized ego, Jakubowicz’s script is too cluttered, and it strives to tell much more of the Duran story than is needed.
It starts on a perfect note, with retired trainer Arcel witnessing his first Duran fight in 1971, saying, in off-screen narration, “In 66 seconds, Roberto Duran changed my life.” Actually, Arcel’s life had already gone through enough changes by then — involving a career that was brought to a halt after crossing the New York mob that controlled boxing two decades earlier. He would be ripe for a biopic of his own.
Before the film gets too jammed up, Arcel meets Duran, who initially isn’t interested in working with this older American. And then the flashbacks — and the clutter — start. The film jumps to 1964, with the tale of young Duran’s hardscrabble childhood, along with scenes of street fights against other kids, a fascination with boxers in training, and him taking to the sport smoothly and naturally. It flashes back even further to 1953, and a hint of what Arcel did that caused mobster Frankie Carbo (John Turturro) to tell him that he was never to make any money from boxing again ... without having to add “or else.” (Note: He trained Duran for free.)
Again, all good. But it’s at that point that the film starts putting on some fat when it should stay lean. There are too many scenes of the high school girl, Felicidad (Ana de Armas), who will later become Duran’s wife; there’s Stephanie Arcel (Ellen Barkin), the wife of Ray, who says a few lines that push the plot along, but then keeps uttering dialogue that amounts to filler; much later there’s a brief scene of Duran meeting his father, who abandoned the family years earlier, and doesn’t need to be in the film; and a lengthier appearance by Ray Arcel’s adult daughter, who he hadn’t seen for years, and is irrelevant to this story.
Fortunately it always gets back to the fights. Duran is still best known for his bouts with Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond), and they’re portrayed here as brutal match-ups, although as boxing aficionados know, the first of their pair of meetings was the better of the two. What film fans will find here is that even though this is the Roberto Duran story, and Ramirez is terrific in the part, whenever De Niro is in the corner of the ring, between rounds, trying to talk sense to his sassy boxer, every moment belongs to him.
— Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
“Hands of Stone”
Written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz
With Edgar Ramirez, Robert De Niro, Ana de Armas, John Turturro, Usher Raymond