Old meets new in Hands of Stone

By Leslie Felperin Time of article published Oct 20, 2016

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HANDS OF STONE. Directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz, with Édgar Ramírez, Robert De Niro, Ana De Armas and Usher Raymond.

Review: Leslie Felperin

ROBERT De Niro stars as Ray Arcel, the trainer who coached middleweight boxer Roberto Duran (Edgar Ramirez) to greatness in the 1970s.

If there were a virtual arena where boxing movies could slug it out and Hands of Stone and Creed could go up against each other as middleweight middlebrows, Creed would probably win on points — but not by a huge margin. The contenders are closely matched. Both are by upcoming directors, although Creed’s Ryan Coogler has more finesse than Hands of Stone’s Jonathan Jakubowicz. Both films are sappier than they think they are, but still say thoughtful things about race, class and how the sport has evolved over the years.

Mainly they’re both about old-meets-new, on either a literal or meta level. Last year’s Creed featured Sylvester Stallone reprising his role as Rocky Balboa, a former champion who becomes a trainer for a younger fighter (Michael B. Jordan). Hands of Stone, although ostensibly a biopic about the legendary 1970s boxer Roberto Duran (Carlos’ Edgar Ramirez), isn’t actually a sequel to anything. And yet the film-makers are clearly well aware that a core component of its appeal lies in the casting of Robert De Niro, star of the canonical fight film Raging Bull, as Duran’s coach Ray Arcel, a largely honorable, fatherly altacocker in a sometimes-grubby sport, basically the opposite of Raging Bull’s Jake LaMotta.

Given The Weinstein Company is distributing the pic, starting it on its journey in Cannes out of competition — where the premiere was turned into a De Niro tribute — there’s a good chance they’ll be pushing him as an awards contender sometime later in the year. The sad thing is that such a strategy, as with Creed, will distract attention away from Ramirez, who gives the more interesting performance. De Niro shows what a master he is at taking his time with a slow burn, but mostly it’s a performance he could do in his sleep, built around the weirdness of seeing him with a latex hairpiece to make him look bald. Ramirez, on the other hand, grabs the chance to show off his range with his angry but cunning, graceful but uncontrollable Duran. His work in the fight scenes packs a persuasive wallop, and while no director since Raging Bull has ever been able to resist the use of slow-motion to show how punches arc and land, Venezuelan-born Jakubowicz (Secuestro Express) wisely doesn’t try to go for the full-on Martin Scorsese homage. He shoots the fights mostly in unfussy crane shots and close-ups, spending more time up-close to Duran and Arcel during their corner pep talks between rounds, which always touchingly end with Arcel combing Duran’s hair before he goes back in the ring, like he’s a son about to sing at his bar mitzvah.

Jakubowicz shows more inventiveness and commitment with the non-boxing parts of the film, especially the scenes set and shot in Panama, where anti-American feeling among the locals runs high. Duran may be barely educated, unable to even read after a childhood spent mostly in the streets stealing to survive, but he gets the post-colonial situation and how his meteoric rise under Arcel’s tutelage turns him into a nationalist symbol. As the film works its way through the key bouts that secured Duran his titles, first against Ken Buchanan in 1972 and then later his frenemy Sugar Ray Leonard (pop star-turned-actor Usher, billed here as Usher Raymond IV), Jakubowicz’s screenplay is careful to plant explication about Panama’s efforts to regain control of the canal. There’s just enough background hum about Omar Torrijos’ regime and archive clips of American presidents (first Carter, then Reagan) discussing treaties to create a reassuring sense that this story took place in a real world, even if it’s obvious huge chunks of that history have been bypassed.

Indeed, it sometimes feels like other chunks have been left somewhere in the editing room’s digital waste bin because there are obvious gaps and stutters in the storytelling, characters whom we’re told are terribly important only to have them disappear from the narrative altogether until it’s time for their demise to affect Duran. At least enough time is allotted to Ana De Armas’ feisty love interest, Duran’s wife Felicidad, to build anticipation around what she’ll achieve in a major role in the upcoming Blade Runner remake.

Fluency is not the film’s strong suit. But set-pieces are, and there are just enough gut-punching shots along the way courtesy of Miguel Ioan Littin Menz — an aerial shot of a religious procession and soaring views of the canal that will do nothing but good for Panama’s tourist industry. In the end, Hands of Stone is far from perfect, but it punches above its weight enough to prevent it from being easily dismissed. - Hollywood Reporter

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