‘Hands of Stone’: Roberto Durán boxing biopic hits… and misses

In trying to portray the many facets of Panamanian boxing legend and cultural hero Roberto Durán, director Jonathan Jakubowicz gets lost in the details.

Members of the cast and crew of Weinstein Company's "Hands of Stone" at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. (Photo credit, George Biard, via Wikipedia, CC 3.0)

WASHINGTON, September 13, 2016 – Roberto Durán is one of the 20th century’s most intriguing boxing legends. He’s the oldest of a foursome of welterweight fighters dubbed the “Fabulous Four” who helped bring the spotlight of the boxing world away from the heavyweight division in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. All four deserve their own sports biopics. Duran got his with “Hands of Stone,” directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz.

PR poster for "Hands of Stone." (Copyright, Weinstein Company, 2016, fair use for CDN film review)
PR poster for “Hands of Stone.” (Copyright, Weinstein Company, 2016, fair use for CDN film review)

Boxing is arguably the most cinematic of any mainstream sport. At the very least, it’s the easiest to film on a grand cinematic stage. The action elements for making a good film are already present, and there’s a central focus for the camera allowing for a variety of views during a bout, adding to the sense of action, excitement and suspense. Boxers, themselves, on screen and in reality, also tend to present themselves, intentionally or not, as larger-than-life figures.

Even the best fictional boxing movies are in reality only semi-fictitious, often times basing themselves almost literally on real life events. That’s why it’s relatively easy to craft almost any legendary boxer’s story as a close-to-real-life biopic. The one-on-one battles in the ring seem to be the very essence of any sport where for the most part, there is always a winner and always a loser, a reflection of life itself, in a way, and the very core of boxing mythology.

Portrayed by Edgar Ramirez in the film, Roberto Durán, now in his 60s, encapsulates in his own intense life everything that makes boxing great for its fans and why it’s so easy to picture his epic career as a film. Not only was Durán considered one of the greatest boxers of all-time. By historical happenstance, he also rose to greatness during an important during a time of turmoil in Panama when the country trying to secure its national identity as separate and distinctive from that of the United States.

Adding to the historical sweep of this international background, Durán’s rivalry with Sugar Ray Leonard was and is the stuff of legend. Add to that Durán’s Horatio Alger rags-to-riches backstory and his sometimes wildly eccentric character an eccentric character in his own right, and you have a story that almost writes itself.

But here’s a problem. Any one of these narrative threads alone could be the focus of an outstanding film. What happens, though, when a multifaceted subject like Durant has too many angles to follow in a film without a dominant focal point to pull the narrative together into a coherent story line? That’s the problem writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz faced in crafting “Hands of Stone,” and it’s one he never quite solves, content instead to focus attention on every detail of this charismatic fighter’s life.

Roberto Durán (right) attending the screening of "Hands of Stone" at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, with director Jonathan Jakubowicz, actor Robert De Niro and De Niro's wife Grace Hightower. (Photo credit, George Biard, via Wikipedia entry on the film, CC 3.0)
Roberto Durán (right) attending the screening of “Hands of Stone” at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, with director Jonathan Jakubowicz, actor Robert De Niro and De Niro’s wife Grace Hightower. (Photo credit, George Biard, via Wikipedia entry on the film, CC 3.0)

That’s really the only major problem with “Hands of Stone.” Jakubowicz simply tries to do too much as he tries to show respect for the various facets of Duran’s illustrious career. At the same time, he also tries not to short change Duran’s trainer Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro) – one of the great boxing trainers of all-time – and Sugar Ray Leonard (Raymond Usher IV), an all-time great boxer in his own right. Both men could just as well have been the subjects of their own films.

This problem also underscores the push and pull that occurs when filmmakers cast heavyweight acting champs like De Niro in important supporting roles, forcing them, to an extent, to give these star performers perhaps more than adequate screen time.

What’s interesting in this film is that Jakubowicz actually is able to capture the wide-ranging facets and personalities involved in the Duran narrative by the use of brief cinematic thumbnails. Better yet, he understands the cultural significance of Duran as a crossover figure both in the boxing world as well as in the national history of Panama.

One of the major problems in laying out Roberto Durán’s story is determining just exactly where the high point of his crazy up-and-down career really is. The most memorable part of Durán’s boxing career arguably occurred during his November 1980 rematch with Sugar Ray Leonard, where, in the eighth round, he suddenly stopped the fight himself, waving Leonard off, allegedly declaring “No más” (No more.)

The actual phrase he used is still debated to this day, but the impact of this incident on the Durán’s career and on boxing itself remains a legend as well as what was arguably the lowest point of his life and career. Since the current film is specifically focused on that event, however, it’s hard to move this movie past this literal gut-punch moment.

Oddly, “Hands of Stone” begins the story with the first meeting of Roberto Duran and Ray Arcel, in which Arcel talks about seeing Duran changing his life and how Duran’s specific boxing style actually follows from this. But this opener is deceptive. It seems to set the scene for a film about the relationship between Duran and Arcel.

Yet immediately after this encounter, “Hands of Stone” takes a hard turn in a different, more political direction. One of the underlying currents of Duran’s life is how much of a national hero he was to his native Panama. Throughout a large part of his early life, his native Panama had begun to vigorously oppose the U.S., which was reluctant give up its claim to the Panama Canal and the surrounding Canal Zone.

The Canal itself was an epic engineering feat the U.S. had successfully completed earlier in the 20th century after the French pulled out of the project. But by the 1970s, Panamanians had begun to agitate for the return of what they regarded as a key part of their national territory. Coinciding with this nationalistic sentiment, Duran’s spectacular rise in the world of sport transformed him into a man who arguably became the most prominent, well-known Panamanian outside the country, helping increase his stature further while bolstering Panamanians’ national pride.

As Durán’s historical significance could not be understated, director Jakubowicz, a Venezuelan, tried to incorporate this as much as possible in Arcel’s narrative describing Duran’s upbringing.

While this historical element is an important part of Durán’s story—and would be in any good hardcover biography of the boxing star—this change in the film’s focus becomes its largest fault. It simply tries to pack too much detail into the narrative, causing the film to veer in different directions, blurring its narrative focus.

Indeed, “Hands of Stone” wants to be every movie that could possibly be made about Roberto Durán. For that reason, it continues to lose narrative focus. Not content with getting into history, politics and geography, the film next gets off track at roughly its midpoint, where a decision was apparently made to shift the focus to Durán’s rivalry with Sugar Ray Leonard.

To gain the time to accomplish this, the film skips over a key span of time where Durán ran up a spectacular 47-1 win-loss run, cementing his superstar reputation. Instead of a film montage that might have covered this narrative sweep, we get a weird mixture of imagery illustrating the passage of time, including short bits on the birth of Durán’s children and brief boxing clips.

True, Durán’s life hits two crucial moments during his encounters with Leonard, moments that encompass the height of his career, but also the downfall of his importance as a boxer, even as he reached his peak popularity as a Panamanian icon.

After this climactic point, the film begins to redraw Durán as an increasingly insular figure. It’s right, of course, to show the highlights and lowlights of any historical career. It’s how life can unfold, even for the rich and famous. But the focus in this part of the film is a bit too heavy on Duran’s downward spiral, which fails to note the contentment he achieved as something of equal and perhaps greater importance.

The underwhelming presentation of his post-victory life undercuts a good bit of what are likely the films strongest moments, the pair of epic battles between himself and Leonard. There are any number different theories about what really happened in that infamous rematch.

Unfortunately, Jakubowicz decides to entertain all of them, ranging from the alleged evaporation of Duran’s desire, to his search for a bigger pay day, to Leonard’s obsession with avenging his defeat and pushing for as rematch after his loss in the first fight as soon as possible. In addition, the Lady Macbeth vibe given off by Leonard’s wife Juanita (Jurnée Smolett-Bell) during this part of the film is a bit of a head-scratcher.

The sequencing of the fight between Durán and Leonard eloquently captures what a total mess this real-life bout actually was. Not only were Durán and Arcel never able to fully engage in in a physical training regime for the fight.

The portrayal of the match itself does a fine job of visibly getting into the head of Durán, who was not only concerned about getting injured but also concerned how he’d completely compromised his fighting spirit. The demons that he had grown up with and had assumed he’d exorcised, all come to the surface in the form of a vapor-like Sugar Ray taunting him the entire time. The entire fight becomes more and more claustrophobic for Duran, who begins to feel caged and ineffective. Normally, this mental state leads to the troubled fighter going down for the count after a display of foolish heroism. But it seemed that Duran saw another way. He declared that the match was over.

The movie tries to focus on Durán’s comeback after this fight, but in the end, this portion of the film seems devoid of interest. Zeroing in on the fighter’s key match with Davey Moore and his reconciliation with Sugar Ray Leonard, the film misses the mark by failing to give enough attention to Durán as a Panamanian icon and why his comeback three years after his humiliating defeat by Leonard meant more than just another boxer showing the world he had something left in the tank.

While the second Leonard match more or less ended Durán’s period as the top flight boxer, the Moore fight illustrated his Phoenix-like rising from the ashes of a supposedly ruined career, allowing him to become so much more than a has-been Palooka. He eventually asserted himself as cultural force that the likes of which Leonard, Marvin Hagler, and Tommy Hearns were never able to become despite arguably being his equals as boxing greats.

That’s the greatest failure of “Hands of Stone.” The film never quite grasps the wider importance of Durán outside the ring. In its wandering focus on Durán the man, “Hands of Stone” misses out on exploring just why even people outside of and unfamiliar with the boxing world hold Roberto Durán in such reverence to this day.

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