Trainer Ray Arcel provides a counterbalance to Roberto Duran’s raw power and fury, counseling him on the importance of mental control while trying to smooth his rougher edges.
Panamanian boxer Roberto Duran, who is regularly included in discussions of the greatest fighters of all time, earned the nickname “Manos de Piedra” (“Hands of Stone”) for the ferocity of his punches. Unfortunately, particularly among people who don’t usually follow boxing, he may be even better known as Roberto “No Más” Duran” for his decision to quit the ring in the midst of a 1980 fight with Sugar Ray Leonard.
Hands of Stone, a biopic of Duran by Venezuelan director/screenwriter Jonathan Jakubowicz, includes the “no más” incident but doesn’t let it define the fighter. When we first meet Duran (David Arosemena as a child, Edgar Ramirez as an adult), he’s a scrappy street kid in Panama City who steals mangoes from inside the American zone for his hungry siblings. (His father, an American, has long since deserted the family.) Unable to attend school because his family can’t pay the fees, he earns money in street boxing matches and eventually convinces manager/promoter Carlos Eleta (Rubén Blades) to take him on. Eleta introduces Duran to Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro), a legendary trainer who got out of the business after being nearly killed by some guys with crooked noses who considered the boxing racket to be their personal property.
Arcel provides a counterbalance to Duran’s raw power and fury, counseling him on the importance of mental control while trying to smooth his rougher edges. Together, they set about conquering the boxing world—which was then enjoying a Golden Age of popularity—as illustrated in a series of fights shot in a stylized manner that reveals, rather than conceals, the brutality of the sport. Duran trains hard and destroys his opponents in the ring, but also likes to have a good time and spread his money around. Perhaps not surprisingly for a guy who grew up with hunger as a constant companion, he really likes to eat—after one victory, he celebrates with cups of all 31 flavors of Baskin-Robbins ice cream)—putting on pounds after bouts that must be lost to make weight before he can fight again.
The key to Duran’s power in the ring, as posited in this film, is that his boxing was an expression of his personality—indeed, of his very being. When Duran made the decision to fight, he went at it without reservation, leaving his rivals bloodied and frequently sprawled on the canvas. In the “no más” fight (for the record, Duran says he never spoke those words), that agency was taken away from him by a crooked deal between Eleta and the American promoter Don King (Reg E. Cathey). Various theories have been proposed for what actually happened that night, and Jakubowicz doesn’t offer a definitive answer (Duran as portrayed in this film is not the kind of a guy who is big on either psychology or on explaining his actions). I suspect, though, he was a kindred spirit to Tom Courtenay’s character in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, who regains mastery over himself in a manner many people would see as contrary.
Hands of Stone is an uneven film, mirroring its central character; I don’t think even Duran’s best friends, or worst enemies, would deny that he had both good and bad points. Its top selling point is the committed performance of Edgar Ramirez as Duran, which should surprise no one who saw him as Carlos the Jackal in the 2010 miniseries Carlos. In fact, all the major acting performances are good, including Ana de Armas as Duran’s wife Felicidad, De Niro’s understated (for him) portrayal of Arcel, Ellen Barkin as Arcel’s wife, Óscar Jaenada as the trickster-like Charlan, and Ruben Blades as Eleta.
The main problem with Hands of Stone is that it tries to chase too many story lines at once. This is a classic biopic trap, and it’s no coincidence that the most successful biopics usually center on a key event in the character’s life, rather than trying for cradle-to-grave coverage. Independent of that problem, Arcel’s story line also includes several unnecessary tangents, the most disposable of which involves a hospitalized daughter. Jakubowicz makes a sincere effort to place Duran’s career in the historical context of United States/Panama relations, something probably necessary for most American audiences (if you know what event Martyr’s Day in Panama commemorates, you’re probably ahead of 90% of Americans already), but it sometimes feels like a history lecture shoehorned into Duran’s story. So Hands of Stone is not a perfect movie, but it’s still worth seeing, particularly for fans of the sweet science. | Sarah Boslaugh