ReelBob: ‘Hands of Stone’

By Bob Bloom

“Hands of Stone” is not a knockout, but I would award it a split decision for its brutal and intense boxing sequences as well as the performances of Edgar Ramirez as boxer Roberto Duran and Robert De Niro as Ray Arcel, his trainer.

The film, though, would lose points for its clichéd storyline and one-dimensional supporting players.

“Hands of Stone” is the story of the world-champion boxer —from his impoverished childhood in Panama to his successes in the ring, his infamous loss to “Sugar Ray” Leonard and his comeback victory.

The rags-to-riches biopic genre comes with its own set of formulae, most of which are covered by director Jonathan Jakubowicz, who also wrote the screenplay.

The film basically plays as a highlights reel of Duran’s life. At times, it seems as an elongated trailer for a much bigger, in-depth project about the boxer.

Ramirez gives a savage performance as the arrogant, antagonistic, self-centered pugilist whose defiant attitude masks the pain and humiliation of deprivation, hunger and abandonment by his American-born father that he endured growing up.

Ramirez also displays Duran’s pride about his Panamanian heritage, as well as his contempt and near hatred for the United States, who at the time controlled the Panama Canal Zone, and the U.S. soldiers who, on Panamanian soil, acted more like occupiers than guests.

For years, the U.S. presence displeased many Panamanians who, as a matter of national pride, believed that the canal should be given to Panama.

That, also, is one of the movie’s flaws. Jakubowicz continually tosses in too many diversions instead of focusing solely on Duran.

The growing political unrest and violence stirred by the Canal Zone situation, a subplot involving Arcel and the New York mob and another dealing with Arcel and a heroin-addicted daughter, really add nothing to the overall story.

De Niro, though, gives one of the better and quieter performances of late. Recently, he has somewhat become America’s version of Laurence Olivier, appearing in just about any movie that will meet his fee — no matter its quality.

De Niro portrays Arcel with a calmness that helps, at times, tame Duran’s wilder impulses and instincts.

Arcel knows from the outset that Duran is a great fighter who, with discipline, can be trained to use his head, as well as his fists to become a world champion.

Among the supporting cast, only Usher Raymond IV stands out as Leonard, though it is difficult to believe that such a smart fighter would allow himself to be suckered into changing his usual strategy because of mind games perpetrated by Duran.

“Hands of Stone” works best when Ramirez and De Niro share a scene. Their bickering back-and-forth gives the movie its needed tension and spark.

Without that, the film would simply be another routine, generic sports biography that fails to do rightful homage to its subject — and would have been send to the canvas in the first round.

Bloom is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. His reviews appear at ReelBob (reelbob.com) and Rottentomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com). He also reviews Blu-rays and DVDs. He can be reached by email at bobbloomjc@gmail.com or on Twitter @ReelBobBloom.

HANDS OF STONE
2½ stars out of 4
(R), sports violence, nudity, sexual content, language, adult themes

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