Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 22, 2016)
Legendary boxer Roberto Duran becomes the focus of a 2016 biopic called Hands of Stone. In a September 1971 bout at Madison Square Garden, Duran (Edgar Ramirez) quickly knocks out opponent Benny Huertas (Yancey Arias), a feat that attracts the attention of famous trainer Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro).
Duran’s manager Carlos Eleta (Rubén Blades) feels Ray can help take Roberto to a world championship, and after some disagreements, they form a partnership. We follow their relationship and aspects of Duran’s career, with an emphasis on his famous 1980 battles against Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond IV).
In fairly standard biopic fashion, we also see snippets of Duran’s pre-fame life in Panama, elements intended to give us a better feeling for the man and what made him such a great boxer. These moments don’t succeed, as they tend to feel stale and formulaic.
The rest of the movie follows a similar pattern. As I’ve noted in prior reviews, I tend to prefer biographical efforts that don’t attempt a “full life story”. I think these movies fare better when they concentrate on one important period of the subject’s life, as these usually offer greater depth and substance.
In the case of Stone, I think a tale that concentrated on the fights with Leonard would work best. Both men enjoyed great careers independent of each other, but those two fights still stand out as arguably their best remembered.
That’s especially true for Duran, though not necessarily to the fighter’s benefit. His “no mas” moment during the second Leonard fight remains an infamous low point in boxing history, one from which Duran really never recovered – at least not through American eyes.
The fights with Leonard feel like they’re supposed to be triumphant, but this tone doesn’t work because we like Sugar Ray. Even if we don’t carry over residual affection toward Leonard from his real career, the movie portrays Duran as such a jerk that the audience finds no reason to hope for his victory. He treats Leonard’s wife Juanita horribly and comes across like a boorish pig – why would we invest in his success?
Answer: we don’t, and that becomes a significant flaw. As a whole, Stone seeks to give us a positive take on Duran, but too much of it fails to convince us that we should like or care about him.
Not that the scattershot Stone really seems to know what it wants to do. While it mainly discusses on Duran’s life/career, it also invests us in Leonard as well as a fair amount of Arcel, all to the detriment of the overall project.
The movie simply lacks focus. It wants to tell us everything so instead it tells us nothing. We never feel like we gain real understanding of the characters, so everything remains thin and superficial.
Stone also tries very hard to seem “epic”. It gives us loud, sweeping music and self-conscious attempts to elevate the narrative in a grandiose manner.
These techniques simply reveal the mediocrity of the product at hand. As hard as the film attempts to seem bracing and dynamic, it comes across more as silly and overwrought.
This extends to the boxing scenes, which end up as some of the dullest fights committed to film. Due to the hyperactive, overly-choreographed presentation, the bouts never muster any drama or excitement. The methods used to bolster the project instead shoot down potential drama and rob the tale of vitality.
The actors plod their way through this inconsistent effort. None of them embarrass themselves, but they fail to add anything – and tend to seem too old much of the time. Nearly 40 during the shoot, we need to buy Ramirez as a teen/young 20-something for a lot of the film, and we can’t. This adds to the movie’s general sense of disconnect.
I’d like to find something to praise about Hands of Stone, but the film includes no obvious positives. As it attempts to give us a view of Roberto Duran’s life, it lacks focus and becomes a mess.