HANDS OF STONE
Writer/Director: Jonathan Jakubowicz
Starring: Edgar Ramírez, Robert De Niro, Usher Raymond IV, Ana de Armas, John Turturro, Ellen Barkin, Reg E. Cathey, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Óscar Jaenada
Boxing movies are apparently in high demand, so here comes the first entry for 2016. Like many others that have come before it, it stars Robert De Niro and is based on another true story with that rags to riches to raging asshole feel. Hands of Stone shines a light on the story of Roberto Durán (Ramirez) who grew up in the poor neighborhoods of Panama. Even as a little kid, he had a wicked jab and was stronger than most kids his age. His love of boxing never let up, and he started gaining notoriety as a lightweight boxer. Legendary trainer Ray Arcel (De Niro) saw Durán as a new golden era of boxing and decided to come out of retirement to get Durán into the world championships. Arcel has a checkered past and involvement with the mafia. Due to a previous deal he struck, he is forced to take Durán on for free. Their partnership proves successful in the ring, and Durán makes a name for himself in the United States. His big fight pits him against Sugar Ray Leonard (Raymond), but his cocky attitude proves to get the best of him.
I don’t necessarily believe in the “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” thought when it comes to boxing movies, but I feel like there are some standard themes and character journeys that seem to come into play with each one. The main character is either the comeback kid or a brutish fighter. Add in the fact that it’s another sports biopic, and Hands of Stone starts to feel very familiar even for someone that doesn’t know the world of boxing. For those that do follow the sport, you are probably familiar with his story and you’ll recognize other big names and faces that pop up like Howard Cosell, Don King, and Sugar Ray Leonard.
It falls victim to typical missteps where it tries to cover too much territory over a lengthy time period without a distinct and clear focus. It’s the biggest film to date for up and coming writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz. I think he gets too caught up in attempting a complete look at Durán’s life without narrowing in to which part of the story he wants to tell. The film is narrated by De Niro as a way of recollecting Arcel’s past, how he came out of retirement, his dealings with John Turturro’s mafia character, and the friendship he formed with Durán. We also learn quite a bit about Durán’s life growing up, the friends he had, and how he met his future wife (de Armas). Jakubowicz also brings in the ongoing feud between Panama and the United States and the cultural impacts it had on this story. They’re all strung together with plenty of date stamps to signify all of the pivotal fights he had in and out of the ring.
The film offers up some admirable performances from the younger cast members. Durán is a strong role for Edgar Ramirez who audiences may or may not be familiar with his work. He’s a previous Emmy and Golden Globe nominee for Carlos and also starred in Zero Dark Thirty, Che, and The Bourne Ultimatum. Durán’s a heavy force and Ramirez definitely knows how to bring that strength to him while giving of the charming playboy vibes that come along with his ego. He pairs well with Ana de Armas (War Dogs) who plays his far too devoted wife and mother of their five children. R&B singer Usher, who is going by Usher Raymond IV on his acting resume, is a standout and surprisingly believable at playing Sugar Ray Leonard. He has the look and the wholesome qualities that I think of for Leonard.
The acting veterans in Hands of Stone don’t come across as favorable. The role of trainer Ray Arcel should have been a return to form for Robert De Niro. He’s been in a string of comedies lately that have all flopped like: Dirty Grandpa, Grudge Match, Last Vegas, and The Intern to name a few. He’s no stranger to boxing films and co-starred with Ramirez in last year’s Joy. I don’t know if it’s the mediocre script or bad wig choices, but he just seems to be playing the standard De Niro type character that we’ve seen countless times before. There’s nothing new or special here. One of De Niro’s next films is the much-anticipated The Irishman from Martin Scorsese. Here’s hoping we get the “Bobby” we all know and love. Playing opposite De Niro in the Arcel centered scenes are the under used John Turturro as his former mafia contact and Ellen Barkin as his wife. They bring some dimension to Arcel’s character, but I question if they are needed at all due to their severe lack of screen time.
I get the impression that Hands of Stone is not as grand or powerful as it sets out to be. Roberto Durán remains a highly unlikeable character throughout most of the movie to the point where I stopped caring about him and couldn’t relate. It doesn’t have an enough build to care about the comeback and redemption aspect of his story. For a biopic, I want to care about its subject matter, and I just couldn’t get there with this one. The film’s lack of focus makes me question if it was once a much longer movie but went through some severe edits to get it under a two hour running time. Even in this version, there are scenes that could be taken out to keep the flow going. I would have expected more given the actors and storyline. It’s from The Weinstein Company, and the end of summer release coming years after the movie was shot may be a sign they don’t know what to do with it either.
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? I think there’s a good movie in there somewhere.
RATING: 2 out of 5 TICKET STUBS