Directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz
Written by Jonathan Jakubowicz
Starring: Robert De Niro, Edger Ramirez, Ana de Armas, Usher Raymond, Ellen Barkin and John Turturro
Runtime: 105 minutes
Think of all the great boxing movies. The Champ, City for Conquest, Champion, The Set Up, Rocky, Raging Bull. Watching Hands of Stone, you’ll get to see bits of all of them. What you won’t get to see is any of it adding up to anything new, compelling or entertaining, just a hodgepodge of allusions to better boxing movies. What should be a rousing tale of a man coming from nothing to becoming regarded as one of the greatest boxers of all time and his equally legendary trainer turns out to be a pale imitation.
Roberto Duran (Edgar Ramirez) grew up in Panama during the student riots aimed at giving control of the canal to the Panamanian government. He survived on the streets because his single mother couldn’t afford to send him or his siblings to school. He started street fighting just to get money to feed his family. When he’s noticed by Eugenio (Aaron Zebede), a trainer who takes him in and teaches him how to hone his natural talent. When he’s a little older, Carlos Eleta (Rubén Blades), the richest man in Panama, wants to be his sponsor and eventually gets Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro), a legendary trainer who has been banned from making money off of boxing by the New York mob, to train Roberto (but he has to do it for free or the mob will kill him). All this leading up to a championship bout with Sugar Ray Leonard, the rematch, a fall from grace, reveling in decadence…you know, the usual.
Writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz seems to love Raging Bull. Not only does he cast Robert De Niro, but he wrote his screenplay under its model and tried in vain to emulate Scorsese’s thrilling, manic camera work for his fight scenes. The trouble is that Roberto Duran is almost nothing like Jake LaMotta (you can actually like Duran without feeling guilty) and his structuring is a rip-off and not an homage. Every scene after Duran’s childhood is dropped into the Raging Bull mold from Duran’s creepy leering and pursuance of his future wife Felicidad to his attitude toward everyone who is trying to help him, through self-destruction. The trouble is that Duran is a sympathetic character who loves his wife and his country and fighting. Arcel is also a sympathetic character and the little interludes with his wife Stephanie (Ellen Barkin) are good, until Jakubowicz throws in a dark part of Arcel’s past that seems out of left field and is truncated, leading to an unsatisfying resolution. It just adds to the sloppy and disjointed nature of the screenplay. His directing isn’t much better, with him trying to be lots of other directors without ever being himself. All of this while his pacing is off and the movie goes back and forth between too slow and too fast, never settling on any rhythm and ultimately just speeding to a conclusion to get a compact runtime. He just doesn’t seem to know what he wants to do with his movie or how to make it his own and it shows.
The bright spots are the performances. De Niro is in good form, better than he’s been in a long time except his work with David O. Russell. He plays his role straight and doesn’t mug or go over the top. Ramirez is equally fine, turning in a very impassioned performance that stands out because it doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie. He’s giving his all and creates a complex character out of Duran. He’s magnetic and compelling and is the best part of the movie. Granted he goes a little overboard at times, but in a believable way, not unbecoming of the character. Usher is very good as Sugar Ray Leonard, fully taking in and displaying the icon.
Hands of Stone is trying so hard to be like other boxing movies that it forgot to be its own movie, which is admittedly difficult for boxing movies. After so many years of great ones, it’s easy to lose the way to something independent of the legacy. Creed managed it expertly, but so many others have failed in the wake of Raging Bull 36 years ago because that film is so perfect you almost feel like we didn’t need any more boxing pictures after it. Expect Hands of Stone to crop back up during awards time, though. It was produced by the Weinsteins, and never forget that they were somehow able to secure a Best Picture nomination for the terrible Chocolate. The trouble is that when it’s brought back up, likely for acting nominations, you won’t remember it, because it just isn’t memorable.