When he hit you, it felt like a jolt of lightning went through your body. So said one sparring partner in the 1970s who, after being knocked down discovered that Roberto Duran’s nickname, “Manos de Piedras’ (Hands of Stone) was very fitting, indeed. One of the greatest boxers of all time, Duran went on to win world titles in four weight divisions, retiring at age 50 with a record of 103 wins (70 by knockout) and 16 losses.
Hands of Stone is also the name of a biographical movie on this living legend. Produced in 2016 by Jay Weisleder, Carlos Garcia de Paredes, Claudine Jakubowicz, and Jonathan Jakubowicz, it is mottled, rough textured and semi-finished. It is crass. It conjures reclaimed barn wood furnishings — which are long on looks but often short on craftsmanship, gracing chic restaurants and home decor magazines. It’s urbane and smoldering, starring Venezuela’s Edgar Ramirez Arellano and Cuba’s Ana de Armas. And with R&B-Hip Hop superstar Usher Raymond cast as nemesis Sugar Ray Leonard, at times this pic resembles a raw song video with high aspirations. Yet for all its promise, as an English professor once scrawled on a freshman’s essay, “there are patches of brilliance in this piece,” but the overall effect is less than stellar.
Clearly, it’s not for lack of trying.
David Arosemena does a wonderful job playing Duran as a child running in the impoverished streets of Guarare, Panama. He witnesses a tragic accident as Panamanians protest the U.S. ownership of the Panama Canal and, later finding himself in jail, is bailed out by a boxing trainer who sees promise in him as a boxer. Years later, Duran (now played by Edgar Ramirez Arellano) spies a beautiful girl (Ana de Armas). Boy meets girl, rich man discovers boy/boxer, boxer goes to New York City and gets discovered by retired boxing trainer, Ray Arcel.
Robert DeNiro (who was amazing cast as the troubled middleweight boxing champ, Jake La Motta, in Raging Bull (1980)), is repurposed as Ray Arcel, who guides this talented, but rough cut boxer from Panama to win his first world title against lightweight champion Ken Buchanan (played by former boxer John Duddy) and go onto an amazing career. DeNiro does a credible job and brings a fatherly warmth and humanity — in contrast to Duran’s churlishness and vulgarity. But given that the movie is stretched thin at one hour and 45 minutes, precious moments are wasted on this character’s inner turmoil.
No doubt, a lot of good footage was cut to whittle it down to a shade over 90 minutes. However, it’s one thing to trim the fat, but another to shear essential muscle and bone that provides necessary structure. The writing dictum, “Show, don’t tell” is taken to extreme. This may account in part for choppiness.
Like cocktail party conversations, ‘Hands of Stone’ flits about. It jumps from staccato snippets of fights, to partying, graphic love scenes, political unrest in Panama, and relationship struggles with his wife. And then there’s Ray Arcel working out his issues with the Mafia, his wife and his past. At times it flows and, at others, it simply doesn’t.
Moreover, other than his fights versus Buchanan, Sugar Ray Leonard (I and II, but not III) and Davey Moore, a large portion of his boxing career remains a mystery. For instance, at lightweight, his championship fights versus Estaban De Jesus were legendary. I would have loved to see how he coped with his devastating knockout loss to fellow all-time great, Thomas Hearns as a welterweight. What about his close points loss to Middleweight Champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler (another all-time great, who flattened Hearns in their epic battle) or his improbable winning of the WBC Middleweight title over Iran Barkley (who knocked out Thomas Hearns) at age 37 in 1989? His story in and out of the ring is rife with great material, but like a frugal deli, the producers of ‘Hands of Stone’ skimp on the meat.
No doubt, Edgar Ramirez and Usher trained long and hard for their roles. Ramirez physically looks and moves like Duran at times, and both he and Usher are reasonable facsimiles of their characters in the ring. Overall, their performances, as well as those by DeNiro, de Armas, Ellen Barken and others are convincing and enjoyable.
Having watched Roberto Duran from my teen years onward and having interviewed him in 2004 (you can read it here), I knew he was a proud, passionate and sometimes vulgar man. That much was apparent in the movie, which was similarly raw and, at times, garish. It was entertaining, even fascinating. However, it was also disappointing.
Duran first mentioned it in his interview with me and in recent years, there has been sporadic publicity on the production of ‘Hands of Stone.” It has been a long time coming.
Evander Holyfield once said that when he fought the Lennox Lewis for the World Heavyweight title, he could see Lennox’s ponderous right hand coming a mile away, thus enabling him to avoid — or ameliorate — the crushing blows.
For a number of us boxing fans, we saw this movie coming a long ways off. We braced ourselves for an enthralling hit, but when it arrived, it lacked oomph. Expecting to see a substantive movie on the great Roberto Duran, we got Duran Lite, with a side helping of Ray Arcel — and a dollop of sauce (nudity, sexual scenes and language). As such, I have to give the movie a rating of 2.5 out of 5.