Hands of Stone, written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz, is commonly portrayed as the story of Roberto “Stone Hands” Duran and his infamous “no mas” fight against Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980. It’s true that this wonderfully composed film tells that story in full, but it covers so much more. Some viewers – particularly those who are not fans of the sweet science – might be put off by the idea of “just another boxing movie” but they shouldn’t be. Unlike the Rocky franchise, where the fight sequences were the highlight of the films and ate up much of the screen time, the four fights included in this movie are fully fleshed out for fight fans, but take up a surprisingly small percentage of the 1:45 run time.
I won’t spend much time on the technical aspects of the film beyond saying that Jakubowicz has done a remarkable job. The photography and the score are excellent, wrapping the viewer up in vignettes which cross decades of time in different countries.
Hands of Stone is actually the dual biographies of both Duran and legendary trainer Ray Arcel, very ably played by Robert De Niro. Arcel’s back story provides theater goers with a deep dive into the struggling and frequently corrupt world of professional boxing from the fifties up through the eighties, complete with the massive, corrosive influence which organized crime exerted on the sport, as well as nearly costing Ray his life at one point.
Duran is played wonderfully by Edgar Ramírez and his story unfolds, warts and all, as that of a very complex man. Viewers will experience much of the unrest and occasionally violent protests in Panama through the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, a background which gives young Duran a decided negative attitude towards America and Americans in general. His upbringing in poverty and early exposure to crime and violence lead him to professional boxing, where he excels in the lightweight division, eventually leading to his meeting with Arcel and his rise to multiple world championship belts and an equally dramatic fall from grace. Duran’s story reveals him as a more sympathetic character than the rude, outrageous and occasionally violent braggart portrayed in sports media, while not glossing over his severe character flaws. Ana de Armas puts in a surprisingly vibrant performance as his wife, helping to shape Duran’s adult years throughout their troubled but eventually successful life together.
The entire cast does a fine job, though I take some issue with the portrayal of Sugar Ray Leonard by Usher Raymond. (That’s not a knock on Usher’s acting ability, but rather the subdued and perhaps overly victimized way that the writers portray Leonard.) My larger complaint comes with the brief but important appearance of Reg E. Cathey in the role of Don King. Cathey’s acting is fine, but the writers chose to show King as an almost hapless fight promoter who was trapped into his actions by the fact that he was “the only black fight promoter in the business.” In reality, by the early 80s it was well known (if not widely discussed) precisely how corrupt and toxic of a force Don King was in the sport of boxing, waist deep in organized crime ties and resorting to outright violence to enrich himself at the expense of the fighters he handled. His depiction in this film is far too kind by many orders of magnitude.
With those minor grievances aside, this was one of the best films I’ve seen this year and should be worthy of recognition at awards time. Even those with no interest in boxing will find this an enjoyable and informative romp through the pages of history.
On the Hot Air scale, Hands of Stone gets a five, but if you don’t catch it in the theater it really doesn’t rely on special effects so I think it would be great on the small screen as well:
- 5 – Full price ticket
- 4 – Matinee only
- 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
- 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
- 1 – Avoid at all costs
Hands of Stone is rated R for violence and sexual content. The violence is no worse than in any other boxing move and the quasi-war scenes in Panama are fairly mild as well. But there are two rather graphic, husband and wife sex scenes including explicit nudity (both male and female) which go on for a few minutes, so you’re left to judge what’s age appropriate for your older kids.