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Because of little known film called Raging Bull, the presence of Robert De Niro immediately brings pressure to any boxing film. It won't surprise you to learn that Hands Of Stone doesn't come close to reaching the masterful heights of Martin Scorsese's work of celluloid perfection. In fact, for the opening periods of Hands Of Stone, Robert De Niro seemingly acknowledges that it is inferior to his past glories by threatening to phone it in. It's not quite Bad Grandpa levels of shoddiness, but he definitely seems uninterested.
But when he's finally paired and sparring with Edgar Ramirez, who is playing the legendary boxer Roberto Duran, whose nickname is responsible for the title, Robert De Niro sparks into life. While, at the same time, Edgar Ramirez produces a cocksure performance of such flawed bravado that it comes close to rivaling De Niro in his prime.
Hands Of Stone follows the life of Panamanian boxer Roberto Duran. Starting from the early 1970s, just after he'd turned professional, and up and past his legendary two bouts with Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980, the first of which saw him capture the WBC welterweight title. While the rematch produced one of the most shocking moments in boxing history.
Edgar Ramirez is genuinely superb as Roberto Duran, owning every inch of the frame. Unpredictable, arrogant and always seemingly halfway through a swagger, Ramirez embraces the volatile arrogance that got Roberto Duran to such a prominent position, but which ultimately was his downfall, too. Most impressively, though, Ramirez is able to spin on a dime in his portrayal, going from irrationally angry to heroic to cunning to lost while always redeeming him in a moment.
Ramirez is ably assisted by some sterling supporting performances. Ana De Armas continues her mainstream ascent with an enthusiastic albeit clichéd turn as Duran's long-suffering wife, while De Niro comes to life when he is training and in Duran's corner. While in the latter, there's a particular nice touch of him combing Duran's hair after each round to try and intimidate his opponent, a detail that immediately adds depth and integrity to the bouts. (Sadly, though, there's not quite enough between the duo to invest in their relationship, an issue that I'll return to later).
An immediately mesmerizing Ellen Barkin stars as Robert De Niro's wife, while John Turturro even shares some scenes with the Taxi Driver star as his old rival with ties to organized crime. These scenes are, as you'd expect, a delight to behold despite their brevity. In fact, while opposite Johnny T, Bobby D produces his finest fleeting moment of the film with a resigned laughter that immediately gets to the heart of his character's conflict.
Rather surprisingly, though, it's Usher that almost steals the show as Sugar Ray Leonard. That's mostly because the singer is eerily able to replicate Leonard's warming smile that was at the heart of the legendary boxer's personality. But even beyond that he's able to mix it with Edgar Ramirez, especially when showing a grudging respect for the dastardly Duran.
Despite these fine performances, Hands Of Stone is at its most captivating during its boxing scenes. Director Jonathan Jakubowicz makes sure to pack them full of cinematic flair, using fast cuts, zips, pans, long continuous shots, while his use of sound is particularly riveting as he mixes silences with bones crunching and brutal gut punches, all of which combine to make you feel like you're actually in the fight.
The bouts are genuinely suspenseful, too, especially in his first and second Sugar Ray Leonard fights, while those of you who know of Roberto Duran's most famous moment inside the ring will even feel yourself getting drawn in, despite knowing exactly what transpires.
Sadly, only some of this panache is translated to his life outside of ring. The highlight of which is one particular sequence that sees a sex scene immediately zip forward to reveal that Roberto Duran and his wife are now on their third and then quickly after their fourth kid, jolting proceedings with a much needed vibrancy and suggesting the story will be well contained.
But that doesn't happen enough, which is mostly down to scripting issues rather than directing. Sadly for Jonathan Jakubowicz that doesn't let him off the hook, though, because he scribed the film, too. At times, Hands Of Stone is ill-defined and erratic, especially in its early stages, as the US' conflict over the Panama Canal somehow becomes the main focus even though it immediately feels superfluous. At the same time, Robert De Niro's sporadic narration is particularly pointless and his emotionless, droll delivery only takes you out of the film. It's like he's just reading a book to his already sleeping grandchildren.
Even more frustratingly, Hands Of Stone's later plots threaten to be interesting and revelatory but lack the penetration, power or focus to do just that, as the film gets bogged down trying to incorporate too many threads that, ultimately, offer little significance It's not that they're tedious. They just bloat what could have been a more concise story (especially in comparison to its masterfully constructed peers Ali, Raging Bull, or The Fighter, which you can't help but consider while watching) and ultimately these little disruptions add up and annoyingly deviate away from the film's most captivating relationship, which is between Ramirez & DeNiro.
Ultimately, though, Hands Of Stone feels like a film that's constantly on the defensive rather than the offensive, as it spends too much time trying to justify Roberto Duran's antics rather than showing his talents that got him there. Sure, it's still impressive in the ring, but that only makes it even more a shame that it doesn't know what to do when it's outside of it.