Since "Rocky," we have come to develop certain expectations for a "boxing movie." Typically, we are given an underdog story of a down-and-out but up-and-coming fighter, who against all odds punches, dodges and parries his way to the top. There is usually a girl who believes in him and a trainer that takes a chance on him. The movie almost always includes a training montage and a nemesis that is easy-to-hate, and culminates in a main event that has our hero going blow-to-blow in front of a shouting, cheering crowd accompanied by a swelling musical score meant to inspire and to prove that dreams do come true, if you are willing to work hard to achieve them. What a breath of fresh air then, that "Hands of Stone" (opening today, Friday 8/26) contains almost none of this. It's the story of boxing legend Roberto Duran, and it pulls no punches in telling an unflinching tale of one man's rise to the top, avoiding the normal boxing cliches that usually jab away, relentlessly.
Duran is played by Edgar Ramirez in this, a break-out role. Robert De Niro plays the famous trainer Ray Arcel, and it's his best performance in decades. Ana de Armas will turn heads as Duran's wife, Felicidad Iglesias, and Ruben Blades (from "Fear the Walking Dead") also does stellar work as his promoter and investor. Rounding out the cast is sight-for-sore-eyes Ellen Barkin as Arcel's wife, John Turturro as the gangster, Frankie Carbo, and even Usher, who gives a flawless job portraying fellow boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard. Could anyone other than Usher capture Leonard's undeniable charisma?
Written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz, Duran is portrayed not as an underdog that has us rooting him on, but as one mean son-of-a-you-know-what, who sees boxing as a means of survival. He is not a nice guy, and has more than one bad habit, whether it be his hatred for Americans or his love of ice cream. He's intense but endearing somehow, and in the 70s and 80s was one of the top boxers on the planet. His two fights with Sugar Ray Leonard are the things of legend, especially the second one, where mid-fight, Duran quit the bout, reportedly uttering the famous line, "No mas," before inexplicably throwing in the towel (a claim he has forever denied).
Jakubowicz establishes him early on not as an underdog, but as a champ. There are no elaborate training sequences, no underlying themes of battling incredible odds. If there's anybody we're connecting to it's De Niro's Ray Arcel, who sees the unbridled potential that Duran possesses. Duran's antagonist in the film is one of the nicest, charming guys you will ever meet in Sugar Ray Leonard, so it's a bit shocking when we see Duran hurling insults not only at Leonard but at Leonard's wife. Like other great anti-heroes of the movies and TV (think Tony Soprano, etc.), we want Duran to succeed even though we aren't sure why. It's an impressive feat of acting by Ramirez, that he makes us not hate his character.
This "flip-the-script" approach to the boxing genre works great, and the in-ring boxing scenes are some of the best in recent years. Jakubowicz's script does contain a few distractions, like a subplot with Arcel's drug-addicted daughter, and what seem to be some gratuitous sex scenes, but the film doesn't shy away from portraying Roberto Duran as a real man. The greatest of his time? Absolutely. A hero? Not exactly.
"Hands of Stone" is a surprise hit, and that's no raging bull.
Genre: Drama, Sports, Action, Biography
Run time: 1 hour, 45 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Edgar Ramirez, Robert De Niro, Ana de Armas, Ellen Barkin, Ruben Blades, Usher, John Turturro
Written & Directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz ("Secuestro Express," "Ships of Hope")
Opens locally on Friday, August 26, 2016
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