Hands of Stone (2016)

  • Time: 105 min
  • Genre: Action | Biography | Drama
  • Director: Jonathan Jakubowicz
  • Cast: Édgar Ramírez, Robert De Niro, Ellen Barkin, Usher Raymond


Follows the life of Roberto Duran, who made his professional debut in 1968 as a 16-year-old and retired in 2002 at age 50. In June 1980, he defeated Sugar Ray Leonard to capture the WBC welterweight title but shocked the boxing world by returning to his corner in the November rematch, saying ‘no mas’ (no more).

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  • The inherent problem with any biopic is attempting to compress a life lasting decades into a two-hour film that not only must mark the important milestones, duly build the historical or political framework, be an enlightening character study, and also hopefully find ways to rise above the usual genre conventions. Hands of Stone, spotlighting one of the greatest boxers in history, has a great deal to wrangle and yet insists on diffusing its focus instead of narrowing it.

    That Roberto Durán is a legend in the ring is indisputable – the Panamanian pugilist held world titles in four weight classes and retired with a professional record of 119 fights, 103 wins, and 70 knockouts – yet his name is not as easily raised amongst the non-boxing aficionados as Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and Mike Tyson, fighters whose flamboyance ensured them a permanent place in the public consciousness even more so than their singular talents. Fame was not a key motivator for Durán – winning, especially against the United States, was everything.

    Durán is already heralded as the great Panamanian hope when down-and-out trainer Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro) sets sights on him. Arcel was a well-known maker of champions – he coached 20 world champions in his career – but reluctantly forced into “retirement” after running afoul of the mob (quietly but menacingly embodied by John Turturro), who were not too keen on his plan to take boxing national by setting up his own television deals. So when Carlos Aleta (Rubén Blades), the richest man in Panama, approaches him to take on Durán, Arcel agrees on the condition that he does so for free.

    The bond that develops between Durán and Arcel grounds the film. Durán is a raging bull, overflowing with machismo, carrying a chip on his shoulder so big it qualifies as its own country, and spurred to punch and pummel as a means of declaring both his national pride and his manhood. The seventy-something Arcel, meanwhile, must train Durán to understand that boxing is a predominantly mental sport and that winning boils down to strategy. That is why, in between rounds, he combs Durán’s hair so that Durán looks fresh in his tired opponent’s eyes. That is why Durán goads the then undefeated Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond, ably conveying Leonard’s charisma) into abandoning his more subtle fighting style by insulting Leonard’s wife. The war begins in the mind and before anyone even sets foot in the ring.

    Edgar Ramírez delivers an excellent performance as Durán, displaying the hunger, hotheadedness, and inferiority complex that lies beneath the swagger. He’s especially effective during the period leading up to Durán’s re-match with Leonard, a re-match that Durán wanted no part of and one he and Arcel were forced into by Aleta. By this point, Durán had gained weight but, more importantly, he had lost the desire to fight. Arcel was well aware of this – he implores Aleta to simply let Durán rest and enjoy the life he has literally fought for – but his beseechings to Aleta and to Don King (Reg E. Cathey) fall on deaf ears. It’s patently clear from Durán’s body language during the re-match that he’s going through the motions, but it still comes as a shock when he notoriously ended the bout in the eighth round by saying, “No more.” (Durán states that he actually uttered, “I won’t fight.”)

    Hands of Stone follows a fairly standard narrative trajectory but writer-director Jonathan Jacubowicz infuses the proceedings with a visual urgency not exclusive to the fight scenes. There are interesting passage of time montages, such as the one that shows every year bringing a new bout and a new baby, and a fantastic aerial shot of a religious procession courtesy of cinematographer Miguel Ioann Littin Menz, who captures both the grime and colourful vibrancy of Sixties- and Seventies-era Panama. The boxing bouts are no Raging Bull (then again, Michael Chapman’s camerawork in that Scorsese classic has yet to be surpassed), but they are dynamic and energetic. One could criticise Jacubowicz for giving short shrift to his female characters (Ellen Barkin, Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Ana de Armas all do their best with the stereotypical supportive wife role), but that curt treatment is bestowed upon all the film’s characters.

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