Boxing movies, both fictional and fact-based, have been a cinematic staple since time immemorial, and recent years have witnessed a renaissance in the genre, peaking with last year’s “Creed.” Now seventies champ Roberto Duran gets the biographical treatment in Jonathan Jakubowicz’s “Hands of Stone,” which combines his story with that of his long-time trainer and friend Ray Arcel. It’s an ambitious film that bites off more than it can comfortably chew: the resultant choppiness are clichés are annoying, and while the picture sporadically lands some effective jabs, ultimately it loses on points.
Jakubowicz’s script finds the key to Duran’s angry, volatile personality in his childhood in Panama, where as an impoverished boy (played by David Arosemena) he witnessed—and experienced—the brutality with which countrymen who were protesting U.S. ownership of the canal were treated by the American forces they looked upon as occupiers. (His antipathy against the U.S. was exacerbated by the fact that his father, who abandoned the family, was American.) He has a penchant for fighting, though, and after showing his pugilistic prowess in street combat conducted by the Fagin-like Chaflan (Oscar Jaenada), he’s taken under the wing of a local trainer who oversees his local rise in the ring until rich entrepreneur Carlos Eleta (Ruben Blades) comes on as his manager, promising to guide him (now played by Edgar Ramirez) to the world championship. Meanwhile cocky, ultra-confident Duran successfully romances beautiful blonde schoolgirl Felicidad (Ana de Armas), despite the fact that she initially turns him away, saying—in a line of dialogue one might have hoped would never occur on screen again—that they are “from two different worlds.”
In New York, Eleta decides that his fighter needs the discipline that an experienced trainer would bring, and offers the job to Arcel (Robert De Niro), a legendary figure who was violently forced from the sport by mobster Frankie Carbo (John Turturro) when he attempted to take it national. Duran sends the reluctant Arcel packing, and one of the film’s major lacunas involves how they were ultimately brought together, a matter that in its present form the picture simply ignores. From this point Jakubowicz follows the chronology of Duran’s climb, under Arcel’s tutelage, to the lightweight championship through his victory over Ken Buchanan (John Duddy) in 1972 and the welterweight title through his defeat of Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond IV) in 1980. The trajectory then turns downward: in a rematch arranged by Eleta with Don King (Reg E. Cathey) so quickly that the celebrating Duran found it difficult to get back into shape, Leonard’s nimble moves led Duran simply to quit fighting, giving up the title. But Duran still wasn’t out: he returned to take the middleweight title in a bruising 1983 match against Davey Moore (Israel Isaac Duffus).
The picture ends with that triumphant comeback, though—as usual—closing captions offer some information about his later life. The basic boxing scenario, moreover, is punctuated by various other matters—the signing of the Panama Canal treaties, which became a point of controversy in the 1980 U.S. presidential election; the death of Panamanian military ruler Omar Torrijos in 1981; the accidental death of groupie Chaflan after a dust-up with the increasingly intemperate fighter; the disintegration of the Duran marriage as he became more and more uncontrollable. A good deal of time is also given to Arcel’s battles with Eleta and his relationship with his long-suffering wife Stephanie (Ellen Barkin), including his reconnection with Adele (Drena De Niro, actually Robert’s adoptive daughter), a drug-addicted daughter by a previous marriage whom Stephanie wasn’t even aware existed.
It should be clear from this that “Hands of Stone” tries to cover an awful lot of territory, and Jakubowicz and his editor Ethan Maniquis plow ahead pretty gracelessly, preferring to pummel the audience, rather like Duran did his opponents, instead of picking and choosing targets and bringing some finesse to their treatment. The result has a certain visceral power, but it often seems a bit punch-drunk, stumbling from subject to subject without much overall shape. The performances, however, are strong. Ramirez has Duran’s anger down pat, but also captures his street smarts, and though De Niro is basically just doing a crotchety old man, he makes an engaging one. Pop star Usher is surprisingly convincing as Leonard, making the fighters’ friendship after their ring encounters plausible, de Armas is a proper spitfire, and Blades and Barkin provide solid support, as does Cathey as the money-conscious King. Even Turturro, who’s inclined to overstatement, delivers an impressively restrained turn as Carbo. Technically the film is fine if not exceptional, with production designer Tomas Voth and costumer Bina Baigeler only occasionally overdoing the period glitz and cinematographer Miguel Ioann Littin Menz bringing some grit to the widescreen images, though his handling of the ring sequences lacks the imagination found in the best boxing films, with “Raging Bull” still setting the gold standard in that regard.
Among De Niro’s boxing movies, “Hands of Stone” falls between “Bull” and “Grudge Match.” It’s closer to the former than the latter, but doesn’t come close to going toe-to-toe with Scorsese’s masterpiece. A pity, because it could have been a contender.