‘Hands of Stone’ Showcases Two-Fisted Performances
Thelma Adams, Film Editor, August 23, 2016
Edgar Ramirez. Robert DeNiro. To watch the mega-masculine actors spar in the boxing biopic Hands of Stone — the story of Panamanian fighter Roberto Duran and his aging American trainer Ray Arcel — is to revel in two nimble performers striking with power and clarity.
Of course, Martin Scorsese’s classic Raging Bull with the young DeNiro as the fighter Jake LaMotta casts a long shadow over this lesser but engaging film. Venezuelan Writer-Director-Producer Jonathan Jakubowicz (Secuestro Express) is no Scorsese. But what he does accomplish – besides the epic casting of DeNiro, Ramirez and a game Usher Raymond as Sugar Ray Leonard – is a fleet little fighter of a film that hits the marks of the well-worn genre. Boxing movies are always about the ways in which what happens within the gladiatorial ring hone the hero’s character – and reveal his flaws.
Ramirez (Carlos) glories as the Panamanian who learned to punch scrapping for money on the impoverished Panama streets in a country controlled by occupying Americans securing that country’s canal. At Duran’s core, we see a superman with “hands of stone” who becomes a symbol for his people as he battles poverty to achieve independence – and a victory over the Americans in the ring when he narrowly beats champion Sugar Ray Leonard. But he’s also a Latin American who was born dirt poor; forever hungry with a desire that food alone can’t satisfy. And, as promoters force him into a premature rematch against Leonard to defend his title, Duran reveals that he won’t or can’t be yoked into a big-money bout as a fighting puppet for American dollars.
In a muscular performance, Venezuelan actor Ramirez assumes the gloves and the ring’s center, at times fiercely charismatic and athletic, at times angry and petulant, unsophisticated. It’s a joy to see him in a leading role. I have the feeling in David O. Russell’s Joy where he played the half-cooked character of Jennifer Lawrence’s ex-husband that there was a better movie lurking in the scenes where Ramirez appeared, sexy and sinewy.
Earlier in his career, DeNiro has traveled that star territory but passes the baton to Ramirez. The Oscar-winner creates a stubborn stillness as Arcel, a passionate yet weary American coach who has run afoul of the New York City mob that controls boxing out of Madison Square Garden. Arcel risks everything – his safety, his health, his marriage — by returning to the sport to train and champion Duran. DeNiro quietly pulls the focus inward in a grounded, deeply felt and ultimately generous performance that lets Ramirez shine.
The movie, like its hero, has flaws. The script moves awkwardly from past to present, mixing scenes of the young urchin Duran (David Arosemena) with the cocky professional boxer’s later rise. These transitions could have been more seamless and subtle, embedded in contemporary dialog rather than reenactments and flashbacks. And the fight scenes in the ring, while adequate, lack the virtuosity of last year’s Creed in which Director Ryan Coogler proved to be a master choreographer while always knowing the best place to put his camera, in a movie that invigorated the Rocky franchise.
Contemporary movies like Creed and Hands of Stone prove that while boxing is no longer the big sport it once was, the fight movie still has a few more rounds. The genre has legs as a showcase for violent action, acting talent and the potent dramatic conflict of one man battling his opponent for dominance — while slaying his personal demons.