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Hands Of Stone attempts to tie the complexities of Roberto Duran to a simple boxing movie.

Boxing movies have a ceiling and everyone attempts to throw their best jab and hook at reaching that ceiling. Robert De Niro’s portrayal of legendary slugger Jake Lamotta in 1980s Raging Bull not only set the gold standard for boxing films, it gave De Niro his second Academy Award. He’s leapt back into the ring afterwards for the sake of comedy, 2013’s Grudge Match with Sylvester Stallone.

But all boxing characters and heroes have dared to be De Niro’s Lamotta. They’ve asked themselves about their flaws; how in a sport where rags to riches is almost woven into the tapestry can they separate themselves. De Niro’s work in Jonathan Jakubowicz’s Hands Of Stone lets him steer the conversation back to the characters in the ring. He’s Ray Arcel, the trainer for Roberto Duran. Yet unlike Raging Bull or even Michael Mann’s Ali, Hands Of Stone plays more to the melodrama of Rocky.

Duran (Edgar Ramirez), the Panamanian born fighter and lightweight legend is the central figure of Hands Of Stone. The film plays like a linear biopic, a colorful mix of Panama in the 1950s and 1960s and contrasting it with the vibrance of New York City regaining its boxing pride in the ‘70s and the flash of Las Vegas in the ‘80s. Jakubowicz’ set pieces here ring true to form. Duran is driven his childhood; a hard scrabble boy who through fighting earns his way out of poverty. Being told what he isn’t endears him to his wife Felicidad (Ana de Armas) when he courts her. He’s combative with the United States government that claims ownership of the Panama Canal and has zero trust of anyone who isn’t from Panama.

But Jakubowicz dresses Hands Of Stone as so many things that you forget its a boxing movie at times. It walks the line of political drama thanks to clips from Jimmy Carter & Ronald Reagan and scenes of revolution. There are moments where it toys with simple concepts of romance thanks to two sex scenes for the sake of having sex scenes and it attempts to appeal to the heart. Ultimately it gets some of these things right – and some of them wrong.

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Boxing movies tend to fudge the actual facts a lot. Ali avoided mentioning Ken Norton breaking Ali’s jaw before the fight in Zaire occurred. Then again, Mann’s entire purpose of making Ali was recreating the Rumble in the Jungle shot by shot. The film trumps up Duran’s two-fight feud with Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher) as the one that defined boxing. In truth, it’s a far more memorable second fight that makes the rivalry even register within pop culture. And Duran even lost a couple more fights before his ultimate redemption against Davey Moore. Ramirez is confident throughout Hands of Stone, only allowing doubt seep beyond his movie-star good looks in brief moments. When it comes time for the ultimate fight in New Orleans against Leonard, we see Jakubowicz’ Ali moment: a shot-by-shot retelling of the infamous “No Más” fight.

The punches and fight scenes in Hands Of Stone find themselves in the middle of typical Hollywood lighting and actual fights. The last two memorable pugilist films 2015’s Southpaw with Jake Gyllenhaal and Creed with Michael B. Jordan stand on opposite ends of this. Southpaw wanted to be Rocky, Creed actually let Michael B. Jordan have legit boxing matches that wound up on film. Hands Of Stone features close ups of Duran accidentally punching foes in the neck, clinches, using his wrist to add a little torque and more. Fighters normally bleed in the ring, some even buckets depending on scar tissue. Duran swings and sweats throughout the film but barely registers any swelling on his face, almost too pretty and statue-like to register a flaw.

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None of this is on Ramirez who throughout the film internalizes the pain of growing up poor and abandoned by his father. His denouement after the second Leonard fight is brief, captured in a soliloquy after Panama is on the verge of unrest before fighting again. The losses are drown out in the waves of prettying up the idea of Duran: hard hits, brutal knockouts and increased social status.

Lamotta’s dark days involved drinking and being woven into a hard luck case; Duran’s darkness only comes through idiotic decisions when he wants to relish in being rich and popular. Usher’s Ray Leonard is charismatic, a charmer who turns the tables on Duran in the second fight and ultimately becomes his friend. What Hands Of Stone chooses to accomplish is a simple, at times generic retelling of boxing’s greatest lightweights, how Arcel sacrificed his later years to protect Duran and how Duran’s ego and pride never let him be anymore than a proud man who broke through a societal caste system in order to become champion.

Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company

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