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Hands of Stone' packs a punch

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Boxing biopic examines the life and career of Roberto Duran

Boxing is perhaps the most cinematically friendly of sports.

There's an undeniable visceral quality to boxing that translates well to the screen. It's also a sport that is both wildly kinetic and confined to a relatively small space, making it fairly easy to film. It is based on the achievements of an individual rather than a team, allowing a narrative to maintain a narrow focus on a single protagonist. Additionally, that same narrowness allows much more room for the development of larger-than-life characters fictional and nonfictional alike.

It's one of those latter types that is the focus of 'Hands of Stone.' The film directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz from his adaptation of the book of the same name is the story of legendary Panamanian boxer Roberto Duran, a fighter whose outsized attitude and appetites led him to the very pinnacle of pugilistic success, but also served to sabotage that same success.

In the early 1970s, Roberto Duran (Edgar Ramirez, 'Joy') is a wildly talented, incredibly volatile lightweight who is on the verge of breaking through into the championship tier of his sport. However, his current team longtime trainer Plomo (Pedro Perez, 'Complot') and manager Carlos Eleta (Ruben Blades, TV's 'Fear the Walking Dead') aren't able to help him get past the final obstacles between him and the belt.

For that, they enlist the help of legendary trainer Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro, 'Dirty Grandpa'); the only problem is that a long-ago altercation with the mob means that Ray's very life depends on never again making money from the sport of boxing. The solution? He trains Duran for free that's how much he believes in the ability and passion exhibited by the young Panamanian.

Duran, for his part, struggles with the trappings of fame following his humble upbringing (an upbringing we see unfold in numerous flashbacks). His wife Felicidad (Ana de Armas, 'War Dogs') and his kids ground him somewhat, but he's never far from that young man fighting to survive on the streets.

The central ring conflict springs from the rivalry between Duran and American superstar Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond, 'Muppets Most Wanted'); the battles between the two are instant classics of the sport, serving as examples of the brutal and balletic dual nature inherent to boxing. Those climactic bouts leave Duran with more questions than answers regarding the man that he is and the man that he desperately wants to be.

Another great thing about boxing films is that their heroes lend themselves to being portrayed as flawed; so many of the sport's legends have real issues that humanize them. Roberto Duran was no different, a man whose fire was fueled by a sense of abandonment and an inferiority complex that drove him to push beyond any and all obstacles to achieve his goals. Add to that the pressure that came with the ferocious nationalism he inspired in his countrymen particularly in a time in which Panama was struggling with its own identity and it's no wonder that cracks in the armor began to form.

Unfortunately, those cracks aren't necessarily explored with the nuance that they might have been. Duran's flaws, while certainly present, are rendered with broad strokes rather than any kind of delicacy. As such, they lose a bit of their impact, though it is oddly fitting for the story of Roberto Duran to be depicted with such bluntness that was who the man was, after all.

And that bluntness isn't always an issue. Duran was a blunt man with broad appetites and simple desires; he himself was far from subtle in most ways. Director Jakubowicz clearly is passionate about his subject, both in terms of the man and in terms of the sport. He captures the needy leanness of Duran's early years and juxtaposes it nicely with the over-the-top overtness that came with Duran's success. And the boxing sequences are beautifully done, offering up a loving presentation of the smooth grace and bone-crunching violence of the sport.

Ramirez is fantastic as Duran, capturing the fiery nature of the man while also finding spots to offer too-brief glimpses beneath that surface passion. It's a magnetic performance. De Niro is quite good as well; frankly, it's nice to see him making an effort outside of a David O. Russell movie, though one could argue that the film leans on him a bit too much. Usher is Usher; while I was hoping that he might surprise me, he just doesn't have the acting chops to replicate the athletic charisma of Sugar Ray Leonard. The rest of the cast does solid work; it isn't flashy, but they offer up ideal supporting turns for this kind of film.

'Hands of Stone' has some issues not least an overreliance on the character of Ray Arcel in a film ostensibly about Roberto Duran but it's still a worthwhile addition to the boxing movie canon. Duran was a great fighter one whose career deserves the bump in attention that a biopic will likely bring.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Sunday, 04 September 2016 16:07


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