Considered one of the greatest boxers of all time, the Panamanian-born Roberto Duran punched so hard that he earned the nickname Manos de Piedra. The man was known for his iron will, never quitting and almost never losing, yet he infamously blew his hard-won reputation by walking away in the middle of a fight to defend his welterweight title. His story has all the makings of a fascinating film, but Hands of Stone isn’t it.
Jonathan Jakubowicz’s follow-up to 2005’s Secuestro Express runs dutifully through a set of salient facts about Duran (Edgar Ramírez). Hopscotching back and forth in time, it shows him evading brutal U.S. occupying forces in the Canal Zone as a kid (and stealing their mangoes to help feed his fatherless family), partying hard after achieving success as an adult (and eating as only someone who grew up hungry can do), and wooing his wife, Felicidad (Ana de Armas), who he first spots when she’s a pneumatic blond schoolgirl and pursues with his trademark cocksure singlemindedness. But all these boxes are ticked off too quickly and perfunctorily to provide much insight into the fighter, other than his resentment of American imperialism, and of the American father who abandoned his family when Duran was a boy.
Casting Robert De Niro as Ray Arcel, the aged but still-great trainer who coaches and cajoles the bullheaded boxer, was a gutsy move, making it all but impossible not to think about Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. Unfortunately, remembering that film’s brilliantly staged fight scenes and deep-dive exploration of the psyche of an emotionally stunted, compulsively controlling fighter only makes watching Hands of Stone’s equivalent scenes that much less satisfying. The film’s boxing set pieces often feel tedious and overlong, chopped up as they are into shots of individual blows, each accompanied by a deafening thunk on the soundtrack, that generally fail to establish the progress of the fight or the strategies employed by the fighters.
Meanwhile, the scenes that focus on Duran’s home life are often hurried, and always somewhat generic. In Hands of Stone, almost as much time is spent on the boxer’s relationship with Felicidad as on his sport, but we learn virtually nothing about her or about how they live when they aren’t throwing parties, in part because she gets so little dialogue. A period of several years following Duran’s marriage is covered by a quick series of short, generally wordless scenes depicting him and Felicidad having sex, then welcoming a series of newborns, interspersed with short takes of Duran boxing.
Arcel’s journey unfolds parallel to Duran’s, in another series of flashbacks and short scenes. De Niro channels Jimmy Stewart throughout, wrinkling his forehead and shaking his head just a little to convey his savvy trainer’s self-contained, slightly rueful brand of wisdom. But the character’s story is also thinly developed: His daughter from a previous marriage, who he and his wife take in after she nearly ODs, is as insubstantial a presence in Arcel’s home as Duran’s interchangeable children are in his.
Still, and maybe because Arcel is such a mensch, his scenes provide some of the film’s most engaging moments. Bits like his charged yet understated exchanges with Frankie Carbo (John Turturro), the mafioso who monitors Arcel’s career, making sure he doesn’t overstep lines drawn by the mob to keep him out of a sport they largely control in New York, periodically upstage the main narrative. Ramírez invests the title character, a macho with an oversized ego and a volatile temper, with charisma and chilling ruthlessness, as he did in Carlos. But the script gives him so little to work with that his portrait of Duran winds up feeling superficial and repetitive.