They called boxing great Roberto Durán “Manos de Piedra,” so it’s understandable that the new biopic about him should be called Hands of Stone. And yet, it’s not the best title for this dramatic treatment, which repeatedly makes the point that brute force isn’t as important in the ring as the mental game. As Durán’s legendary trainer Ray Arcel, Robert De Niro opens the picture by saying, “Ring sense is an art,” later pounding in to Durán, “It’s all in the head,” strategy as important as technique.
Hands of Stone would be a better movie were it more “in the head,” but as it is, the picture offers the simple pleasures of both a conventional biopic and a boxing movie, structured for sports-story redemption. And while, ultimately, it imposes a misleadingly tidy shape on Durán’s life and career, this account by writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz doesn’t shy from depicting Durán as petulant, arrogant, insecure, reckless, and generally unlikeable. Granted, much of Durán’s bad behavior is on record, but Jakubowicz and star Edgar Ramírez keep their Durán, the picture’s ostensible hero, edgy to a daring degree.
The action begins in 1971 at Madison Square Garden, where Durán’s manager Carlos Eleta (Rubén Blades) introduces old friend Arcel to Durán. At 72, the canny Arcel has a reputation for training nearly twenty world champions, and he’s quickly sold on Durán (in 66 seconds to be exact, the length of the Durán vs. Huertas fight). Durán initially rejects Arcel because he represents the Panamian lightweight’s sore spot: as an American, Arcel bears in Durán’s mind the sins of his country and of Durán’s father, an American who left Durán and his mother to fend for themselves in the Panamanian slums. Hands of Stone flashes back to fill in Durán’s youth as, basically, a street urchin, an illiterate scrapper who thieves to eat, learns boxing from a tender age, and develops a cock-of-the-walk external confidence that belies his internalized fear of hunger.
Durán’s survivor mentality and, specifically, his experience of true hunger inform his later erratic behavior. And whether out of loyalty or insecurity, Durán brings with him to America not only Eleta, but his trainer “Plomo” (Pedro Perez) and his flamboyant street mentor “Chaflan” (Óscar Jaenada). Hands of Stone also weaves in the trajectory of Durán’s relationship with Felicidad Iglesias (Ana de Armas), history of late-20th-century U.S.-Panama relations, namely in the political gamesmanship around the Panama Canal. But Jakubowicz mostly focuses on the role of Arcel in focusing Durán to achieve his greatest wins and tragically failing to do so in his greatest loss (remembered in boxing history as the "No Más Fight"). Both involve competitor Sugar Ray Leonard, convincingly portrayed by Usher Raymond.
Flawed but enjoyable, Hands of Stone proves simplistic in dramatic terms and slippery in its point-of-view even as it manages to engage interest. Colorful, kinetic visuals and dynamic sound keep the film more cinematic than the typical sports movie, but above all, the film works as well as it does on the strength of its acting. De Niro is in fine, grounded form, and his verbal sparring with Ramírez, Blades, John Turturro (representing the mob’s reach into boxing), Reg E. Cathey (as promoter Don King), and, albeit more tenderly, Ellen Barkin as Arcel’s wife elevates the film, the overlapping dialogue highly effective in infusing naturalistic energy.
Each co-star—and, of course, most crucially, the excellent Ramírez, who obviously developed a rapport with De Niro playing his son-in-law in last year’s Joy—goes toe-to-toe with De Niro in scenes that lend the film much of its entertainment value. Hands of Stone may well convince you of little more than that Roberto Durán was a talented boxer and a world-class jerk, but it’s a decently informative biopic about a sportsman under unique pressures.
The Weinstein Company and Anchor Bay give Hands of Stone a solid treatment in its Blu-ray debut. The digital-to-digital transfer generally makes the most of the source material and resembles the theatrical exhibition. Where the image runs into a little trouble is in darkly lit scenes, which exhibit some crush. But the occasional digital noise aside, the general impression of the picture is true color and fine detail and textures. The potent, lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix packs plenty of punch, especially in the boxing matches. Those matches and street scenes also provide lively and immersive ambience. While never deprioritizing the dialogue, the mix also gives full, rich body to the music cues.
Bonus features kick off with "Roberto Durán: A Boxing Legend, A Nation's Pride" (23:33, HD), a making-of piece featuring behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with Edgar Ramirez, Usher Raymond IV, writer/dirtector Jonathan Jakubowicz, producer Jay Weisleder, Roberto's son Robin Durán, Ana de Armas, Ruben Blades, fight choreographer Rick Avery, and Robert De Niro.
Eight "Deleted Scenes" (10:42, HD wth "Play All" option) comprise "Ray Arcel's Introduction, Durán's Family," "Ray and Stephanie," "NYC Taxi Ride," "Eleta Calls Arcel," "Soldiers Tease Felicidad," "Durán Fights Soldiers and Leans on Chaflan," "Durán Visits Felicidad," and "Party After 'No Más.'"
Also on hand are "'Champions' Lyric Video Featuring Usher" (2:26, HD) and "'Champions' Lyric video Featuring Ruben Blades" (2:32, HD), each beginning with an introduction by the respective artist.
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