What it's about:
The true story of Roberto Duran, the middleweight boxing legend, and his often tumultuous relationship with his trainer, the no less legendary Ray Arcel.
What we thought:
For a true story, it's rather odd that Hands of Stone suffers primarily for feeling like a not-entirely-successful amalgamation of a half dozen previous sports movies and biopics. It's a pity because it does have some strong performances from Edgar Ramirez, Ana De Armas, Robert De Niro and, most surprisingly, Usher Raymond as Sugar Ray Leonard, as well as more than its share of heartfelt good intentions.
To be specific, Hands of Stone basically plays like a bargain-bin Rocky knock off, with some of the recent Pele's real-world social-political concerns thrown in for good measure, but with the imminently likable Rocky Balboa replaced by a real-world figure who is only slightly more sympathetic than De Niro's own portrayal of Raging Bull's own real-life boxing legend, Jake LaMotta. The combination is unquestionably an uneasy one but, though it's roughly on the same level as Pele (though no where near as enjoyable, come to think of it) it's not even in the same galaxy as Raging Bull or any of the better Rocky films.
Raging Bull, for example, may force you to spend a couple of hours with a person that you'd normally cross continents to avoid but it is a masterclass in filmmaking with both De Niro and Scorsese arguably never bettering their work in that film. Here we get the the utterly unsympathetic athlete – though, to be fair, Duran mostly just comes across as an obnoxious punk as opposed to the truly hateful LaMotta – but Jonathan Jakubowicz's perfectly solid, workmanlike writing and directing is nowhere near notable enough to elevate the film beyond its awful protagonist. Similarly, Ramirez is a very good actor but he's still got a ways to go before he can stand up to De Niro in his prime.
Indeed, though this is hardly prime De Niro, he and and his very affable, Yiddish-spouting old trainer-character is definitely a boon to the film and the whole thing is elevated another level or two when he's on screen but neither he nor the impossibly lovely Ana De Armas can ever completely overshadow just how utterly slappable Robert Duran is at every turn.
As for Rocky, this rags-to-riches boxing film can't help but avoid comparisons, but nothing about Hands of Stone comes close to capturing either the scrappy beauty of the original Rocky nor its rather silly but endlessly uplifting and entertaining sequels (the dour and ill conceived Rocky V aside, of course) specifically because it's so much harder to root for Duran than it is Rocky Balboa. It's also a hell of a lot less witty and, for that matter, quietly and humbly intelligent as a film in general.
In terms of its political under- (really over-) tones, it doesn't exactly come off much better. Yes, the stuff about the horrible conditions of life in Panama are both interesting and moving enough but they also feel constantly shoe-horned in and, worse, tend to exist as shortcuts for Duran's characterisation. I don't know whether it's a weakness in the real life Duran or in the film's portrayal of him but there's a sense that the only reason you might care about or be even remotely interested in Roberto Duran is because of his background, rather than anything about the character himself, who remains blandly unlikable and utterly two-dimensional throughout.
I suppose Hands of Stone might just about pass the time for hardcore boxing or biopic fans and it's always nice to see De Niro actually trying but it certainly isn't this year's Creed.
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