Hands of Stone is a biopic about boxing coach Ray Arcel, played by an unsurprisingly impressive Robert De Niro, and is focused on Arcel’s coaching of Panamanian boxer Roberto Durán, played by an attention-demanding Edgar Ramirez.
The sport of boxing lends itself to cinematic pacing, and, following the mold of the Rocky films, Hands of Stone is a glimpse of Durán’s career showing his rise out of poverty into success and fame. The film’s billing gives Ramirez the top slot, but the story arc lingers too long on Arcel’s perspective so that it’s difficult to tell who is the film’s real focus.
Arcel makes for a somewhat unenthusiastic protagonist, except for when he’s scolding Durán for his lack of discipline and civility while throwing out a handful of colorful Yiddish insults, and the film’s drama is typically heightened in the moments that turn away from Arcel toward Ramirez’s rags-to-riches struggle. Arcel is inherently a mature character, which doesn’t make for much compelling conflict. The script could have paid a little more attention to the pitfalls of Rocky V, which was the weakest in the franchise because Rocky took to coaching instead of fighting. It may not be fair to judge this film according to my teenage love for the Rocky films, but Hands of Stone does not part from the Rocky formula enough to forget it.
The script also does Ana de Armas’s acting talent a disservice by relegating her to the role of sexualized, titular character’s wife, but at least she’s Hispanic and not another example of Hollywood’s white-washed aesthetic. Hands of Stone may be centered too much on Arcel’s point of view, but that doesn’t stop the film from including a rather unnecessary sex scene between Durán and his wife. Just because a film can have nudity doesn’t mean it needs to have nudity. Either way, de Armas is building an acting career worth better roles than the eye candy parts she has gotten so far in American cinema (she was also the sexualized, titular character’s wife in the just-released War Dogs).
Props to Usher, who charmingly plays Durán’s rival, Sugar Ray Leonard. Compared to Durán’s immaturity and hyper-masculinity complex, you want to see the ever classy Sugar Ray win. Usher has had a somewhat under-the-radar acting career over the last decade and a half, and his work in this film warrants lead roles.
One thing this film certainly improves upon from the Rocky franchise is its contemporary passion for inventive cinematography. The camera is maneuvered to the rhythm of the fights, and it is frequently disoriented with the fighters’ powerful punches, which gets the audience somewhat physically involved within the violence. However—unlike Rocky — Durán never gets an iconic training montage, though he does get a classic, freeze frame pose.
Overall, Hands of Stone works well as a period piece through the 60s, 70s and 80s, and as a bit of a visual history lesson. The film commendably does not hide the negative history of America’s militant occupation of the Panama Canal, and the American injustice is integral to Durán’s nationalistic pride and motivation to be the best boxer in the world. This film embodies Panama’s struggle against American imperialism, and Panama is the real underdog fighter.
Contemptor Grade: 7
Image via Variety