Hands of Stone Edgar Ramirez, Robert De Niro, Ana de Armas. Directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz. Rated R. Opens Friday citywide.
One of the most famous and bizarre bouts in boxing history took place between Roberto Durán and Sugar Ray Leonard on November 25, 1980. Held just five months after Durán had beaten the previously undefeated Leonard to become welterweight champion, the rematch was highly publicized, but what made it unique was the way that it ended: not with a knockout or a bell ringing, but with Durán unexpectedly deciding, at the end of Round 8, that he didn’t want to fight anymore. He simply quit, handing the title back to Leonard. So unprecedented was this out-of-nowhere forfeit that ESPN devoted an entire 30 for 30 episode to it, entitled No Más (2013). You’d think, then, that a biopic about Durán would seek to create a credible psychological portrait of the man who made that decision. Instead, Hands of Stone is just a run-of-the-mill boxing flick, with Robert De Niro, as Durán’s trainer, making the strongest impression.
Admittedly, De Niro’s presence doesn’t help, since it inevitably conjures memories of his legendary performance in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (coincidentally released 11 days before the Durán-Leonard rematch). Durán himself is played by Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez (Carlos, Zero Dark Thirty), even though the boxer hailed from Panama. Early scenes establish Durán’s resentment toward the U.S. and his American father, who abandoned the family; it’s implied that this abandonment fueled the anger that shaped his punishing style in the ring. That’s about the extent of the film’s insight into its subject, however. Writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz (who’s also Venezuelan, despite his Polish surname) mostly sticks to the sports biopic’s standard beats, documenting Durán’s gradual rise without providing any indication of what led to his still-mysterious fall. Durán blamed stomach cramps, but absolutely nobody believes that.
Ramirez, a fine actor, does what he can with the movie’s thin conception of Durán, who’s largely defined here by generic pugnaciousness. But Hands of Stone owes what meager energy it possesses to De Niro, as trainer Ray Arcel. Already a senior citizen with a storied career behind him when he began working with Durán, Arcel could easily have come across like a variation on Burgess Meredith’s Mickey from the Rocky movies, but De Niro shrewdly finds his own amalgam of gruff and tender; the film’s key image is Arcel brushing Durán’s hair back before the beginning of each round, as if he’s sending him off for his first day at school rather than out to pummel and be pummeled. Moments like this, along with some fascinating background detail about the Panama Canal, suggest the compelling and distinctive picture that Hands of Stone might have been, had Jakubowicz worked a little harder. When it comes to Durán’s psyche, alas, he throws in the towel.