By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)
During the 1970s, Panamanian Roberto Duran rocked the boxing world with his “Manos de Piedra” (“Hands of Stone”) and eventually won his way to the WBC Welterweight championship against Sugar Ray Leonard, with whom he formed an intense rivalry. This bout and the infamous rematch that followed made sports history and is still talked about to this day. Of course, there is more to the story than just a bitter rivalry full of mudslinging (on the part of Duran), poor decisions, and prideful machismo. In Hands of Stone, writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz tells a more in- depth story about Duran, beginning with his impoverished beginnings and covering his infamous days of rivalry with Sugar Ray Leonard.
Edgar Ramirez stars as Roberto Duran, a Panamanian who grows up in extreme poverty in a nation under partial control by the United States. With no education or work skills, Duran becomes a fighter as a means to provide for himself and his family, and discovers his abilities to punch hard and take hard punches. As he grows into adulthood, his reputation catches the attention of boxing trainer Ray Arcel (Robert DeNiro) who sees a bright future for the brash and bold boxer. As Duran pursues a successful career, he also pursues the love of Felicidad Iglesias (Ana de Armas). Duran forms a high profile rivalry with Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond IV) and wins the championship, but the excesses and trappings of fame and success rob the boxer of his hunger and drive to win.
Based on the biography Hands of Stone by Christian Giudice, Jonathan Jakubowicz does offer an insightful look into Duran’s background and the psychological warfare that Duran waged on Leonard prior to their first match. Other than that, however, the film doesn’t really give audiences anything else that they haven’t already seen in other boxing movies like Raging Bull and the Rocky franchise. It is a story as old as time. A person is driven to succeed by hunger and poverty and discovers the means to overcome. However, once that person achieves that success, the hunger and drive is no longer a factor and the rewards of winning often extinguish the fire inside. Roberto Duran’s story is an inspirational and cautionary one, and his clashes with Ray Leonard are fascinating and exciting, but anyone who knows their sports history well, already know this.
Still, Jakubowicz does his best with the trope-heavy story and he and his cast and crew do remarkable work in recreating these true events. After the screening of the film, I rewatched ESPN’s 30 for 30: No Mas, an episode which recalls the legendary match-ups between Leonard and Duran with both boxers offering their takes on these events. Jakubowicz’s film gets it mostly right, with a few fictional liberties taken for pacing and more effective story telling. What is most impressive about this movie are the performances by the cast, though.
Edgar Ramirez perfectly captures the incendiary passion and drive of Duran. He portrays him as awkwardly charming when the boxer is at his best behavior and genuinely hateful at his worst. It is definitely a fully dimensional development of a real person with both his endearing qualities and character flaws. It is a fascinating examination of aspiration, pride, machismo, and arrogance. The same goes for Usher Raymond IV who portrays the more camera friendly and charismatic Sugar Ray Leonard. Robert DeNiro gives a superb turn as the very paternal Ray Arcel, a trainer who only wants the best for his fighter in a sport run by corrupt and money grubbing opportunists. The lovely Ana de Armas offers a solid performance as Duran’s wife Felicidad. The movie also features great work by Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Ellen Barkin, Ruben Blades, and Pedro Perez. My only complaint about the acting comes from a bewildering performance by Oscar Jaenada who performed well in the title role of the biopic Cantinflas, and for some reason, seems to be playing the same exact character in this film.
Despite this and my other complaints, I still moderately recommend this film for sports fans who know little about this fascinating story, but I must also highly recommend the 30 for 30: No Mas as an essential companion piece. As for older sports fans who lived during and witnessed the Duran/Leonard rivalry era, this movie is interesting for its superb reenactments of these events, but is limited by its familiar story material. As entertaining as boxing movies can be, most of the modern ones can’t seem to cover any new ground that the previous ones haven’t already covered. Until filmmakers have something new to offer audiences in a boxing story, perhaps the studios should be the ones to say, “No mas.”