Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Hands of Stone

Directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz.
2016. Rated R, 111 minutes.
Édgar Ramírez
Robert De Niro
Rubén Blades
Pedro "Budu" Pérez
Ana de Armas
Jurnee Smollett-Bell
Oscar Jaenada
Ellen Barkin
John Turturro

Muhammad Ali dew me into boxing fandom before I had entered kindergarten. I learned to spell his name around the time I learned to spell my own. Truth told, however, I came along during the latter portions of Ali's career. It wasn't the very end, mind you, but I was too young to catch it all first-hand. I saw most of his fights after the fact. I'd get my first glimpse of them weeks, months, or sometimes years later. Luckily, the next great boxing personality was coming into his own just as I was becoming able to appreciate the building of a legend in progress. He was immensely talented with a pair of the fastest fists I've ever seen. Uncharacteristic of most fighters with such speed, those fists were also filled with power. He was the charismatic, good looking owner of a megawatt smile and had a squeaky clean image. As such, he was one of the first, and still one of the very few, African-American athletes to have the image of All-American Boy bestowed upon him. He was the first boxer to come along during my lifetime to transcend the sport and earn true superstar status. The familiar cliche says, and I'm paraphrasing, men want to BE him and women want to be WITH him. And in the case of one Sugar Ray Leonard, it was true. Both genders watched in awe as he dismantled opponent after opponent with a blend of ease and grace not seen since Ali's younger days. However, early in 1980, Leonard was to face his stiffest challenge to date. For the first time, people gave serious consideration to the idea he could lose. The guy he would be fighting was some mean son of a bitch from that country with the canal. He hit so hard they called him "Manos de Piedra" or Hands of Stone. In other words, Roberto Duran, the man this movie is named after, came into my life as a villain.

Little did I know two legends were simultaneously being built over the course of Duran's first two fights with Leonard. Both of their mythologies were constructed in full by the time of their third fight. It took the expanse of the nine years between those last two bouts for me to even begin to appreciate Duran for what he was: a tough and proud fighter who lifted himself up from less than meager conditions to become a hero in his native Panama. Duran was far more important to the hopes and dreams of his people than even Leonard to that of African-Americans. However, I've gotten ahead of myself. Let's go back to those less than meager beginnings.

We are initially introduced to an adult Roberto (Ramírez), already a professional boxer, but this is mere foreshadowing. We really meet him as a pre-pubescent delinquent who literally fights other boys to earn money to help his mother feed the family. One thing leads to another and Roberto puts himself in front of Plomo Quiñones (Pérez) who runs the local boxing gym. Plomo reluctantly agrees to train Roberto under one condition. "If you are caught fighting or stealing," Plomo tells our young hero, "I'll bring you back myself and leave you here (in jail)." This is set against the backdrop of U.S. involvement in Panama, as it owned the Panama Canal. This included more than its fair share of violence with Panamanians usually getting the short end of the stick. Eventually, Duran will come under the tutelage of famed trainer Ray Arcel (De Niro) in the hopes of becoming a world champion.

It is in Panama where the film fares best. Watching the young Roberto Duran grow into the legend he would become is fascinating theater. We see that the cockiness needed to step into the ring knowing you're going to destroy the man across from you has always been present. The intriguing thing is seeing how that affects him outside the ring. At times it's a good thing, other times, not so much. On the positive end of the spectrum, it fuels his courtship of Felicidad (de Armas), whom he would go on to marry. Conversely, he has difficulty understanding how any way but his could possibly be the right one. Ramírez completely sells us on the idea of Duran being a man who believed himself invincible. He vanishes within the role to give us a man held in high regard by his countrymen.

Panama also gives us the film's most colorful characters. Plomo is one. There is also Chaflan (Jaenada), a pied piper type who took Roberto and a number of other neighborhood kids. Roberto's manager, Carlos Eleta (Blades) is a very interesting guy, as well. The most colorful character of all might be Panama, herself. She's a living, breathing entity who looks up to or down at Roberto at different times in his life. Her feelings for him, at any given moment, plays a huge role in his life and in this film. Those feelings are used to great effect.

Another big player in Duran's story is the aforementioned Sugar Ray Leonard, here played by R&B superstar Usher Raymond. Usher is no stranger to acting and acquits himself quite well. Unfortunately, the film mishandles things just a bit in regards to his character. Somehow, it simultaneously gives us too much and too little of him. On the too much side, it tries to give us his side of their rivalry through quiet moments of reflection and intimate scenes with his wife. In theory, this is a good way to go about it. However, a Duran biopic is understandably reluctant to take the focus off its hero for too long. Therefore, it never goes far enough for us to really get to know Leonard. Viewers are only armed with whatever knowledge they already have of him, aside from the obvious differences as presented in the film. Since it wouldn't go as in depth as necessary, a little less Leonard might have better served the film. This would likely leave him pigeonholed into a villainous role and would have been less historically accurate, but would unburden the viewer of trying to figure out how they feel about him.

Even if it isn't perfectly handled, the Duran-Leonard saga is done well enough to capture the essence of their rivalry. The film tries to do the same for Duran's relationship with Arcel. the man who would guide the fighter to greatness. If there's a reason the film holds back on its exploration of Leonard, it's because it spends so much time trying to shoehorn Arcel's life into the picture. Arcel and Duran did indeed share a special bond, but the movie goes too far beyond that. At various points, we get some grand event from the trainer's life that interferes with his ability or desire to work with Duran. However, they're all haphazardly slapped into place with Duran apparently unaware of them. They don't all come to satisfactory conclusions, either. The most egregious offender being the out-of-nowhere issue of Arcel's daughter. When it suddenly appears, it creates multiple issues then is abruptly dropped. The effect it has on the film is akin to slamming on the brakes then immediately stomping on the gas pedal when we switch back to Duran. The film goes so far as to tell Duran's tale through Arcel's eyes, even making him the narrator. It gives the whole thing a white savior feel. The general idea seems to be that this benevolent Caucasian reached down into the slums of Panama and rescued this floundering soul. Why not tell Duran's story through his own eyes? At the very least, it should've been Duran's wife telling the story. True, it's a story that can't be told without Arcel's involvement. However, it doesn't need to be about him, especially since his side of things is done in a rather half-assed manner.

There are still lots of things to like about the movie. As mentioned, the scenes of Duran in Panama, including his pursuit of, and relationship with, Felicidad, are fantastic. The movie absolutely sizzles when dealing with either of those things. The stuff with Leonard is entertaining, if not as poignant as it thinks it is. The fight scenes between them are very well done with neither actor feeling out of place. As a whole, the movie is beautifully shot and really captures who Roberto Duran is at different points in his life. The performances are wonderful, more than capably lead by Édgar Ramírez. The film's shortcomings keep it from greatness, but it's still a solid entry into the boxing movie sub-genre.

Click below for more boxing related posts:


  1. I wanted to see this because of the story but hearing how disappointing it is as well as the dramatic liberties. No wonder it didn't do well. I'll just stick with the 30 for 30 doc.

    1. I don't think it's as bad as most people are saying, but it certainly should have been better.

  2. This is one I just straight up skipped. Sounds like it might be worth watching though. Have you seen Bleed for This, the boxing movie with Miles Teller, yet? That looked better to me.

    1. It's no masterpiece, but I'd say it's worth a watch. I haven not seen Bleed for This. Since I'm always on the lookout for a great boxing movie, I'll be sure to check it out at some point.

  3. When I clicked on this post, I was thinking this was the flick that Kevin mentioned, but that one's about Vinny Paz, right? Anyway, outside of the title, I'd never heard of this one, and based on your review...I'm certainly interested.

    My first boxer to go crazy about was Iron Mike, and it's never really been the same since. Of course, as I got older, it was all about Ali, and I thank Movie God that there are some sweet docs out there about The Greatest.

    1. I hadn't heard of the one Kevin mentioned before, so I can't say for sure, but I'll find out. This one is worth a watch, for sure.

      Iron Mike was special in so many ways, good and bad. There was nothing like a Tyson fight, either, for good or bad, lol. And yeah, lots of great docs about Ali.