Hands of Stone
Director - Jonathan Jacubowicz
Cast - Edgar Ramirez, Robert De Niro, Usher, Ana De Armas, Ellen Barkin
Rating - 2.5/5
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a sports movie in possession of a good story, must be a boxing movie.
Hands of Stone, based on the life of one of the greatest boxers ever to throw a punch, Roberto Duran, is no classic, nor is it a slouch. But curiously, none of it is its fault really. It is faced with unbeatable odds; odds that push it into a corner, odds that make it cling to the ropes. It would have been foolish to expect greatness from it.
We have arrived at a time in the history of cinema when boxing films have begun to resemble grizzled old fighters themselves. It is unlikely that any young upstart will ever come close to the greatness of Rocky or Raging Bull, but that doesn’t stop them from trying. They will be challenged by The Fighters, the Creeds and the Southpaws, but the Champs never lose.
Hands of Stone has spirit. It has the power. But like most young fighters, wet behind the ears, it is impatient. It has the energy, but none of the cunning; it has the passion, but none of the mental strength required to last 12 rounds with the best.
There is a story in there somewhere though. Roberto Duran, from the minute he was born in the tempestuous streets of Panama, seemed to have been destined for greatness – and to have a movie based on his life. He is a volatile character, just as prone to idiocy as he is to assuming an almost Pepe Le Pew personality. And as played by the always-wonderful Edgar Ramirez, he has enough charm to woo a don’s daughter.
Ramirez is joined in the ring by Robert De Niro, who, in an inspired bit of stunt casting that comes a year too late, almost manages to pull a Sylvester Stallone – but not quite. The trouble, you see, is that Stallone found himself in one of the best films of 2015 in Creed. De Niro however, must settle for one of the more mediocre ones of 2016 instead. As exciting it is to see Jake LaMotta step into the Burgess Meredith role, the memory of Creed is far too raw, its brilliance won’t fade anytime soon.
Venezuelan director Jonathan Jacubowicz displays unmistakable flair, his fight scenes are filmed with waltzing steadicams and accented with piercing sound design, but in service of a rather clichéd script (which he also wrote), the punches never quite land.
The hurried, frenetic storytelling can’t do justice to the true story at its core, and the several characters the film tries, and fails, to cram in. It is almost as much about Ray Arcel, De Niro’s veteran trainer, as it is about Duran. This decision to make a traditional cradle to the grave biopic is what does Hands of Stone in. Had the film focused on Duran’s two fights with Sugar Ray Leonard, perhaps it might have been more focused, more sure-footed.
Without a journey in which to invest the viewer, the film feels more like an after-the-fight highlights show, than an emotional biopic.
And if you think about it, wasn’t it the journeys that made us fall for boxing movies in the first place? The journey from humble beginnings to the final fight, with the girlfriend biting her nails in the stands, the coach yelling profanities from across the ropes, the trainer rushing forward with a blade, the flashes of the camera, the close-ups of the crowd, the family watching on cranky TVs back home…
If only the Hands of Stone also had a Heart of Gold.