Thanks to his role in Martin Scorsese’s immortal 1980 classic Raging Bull, Robert De Niro will forever be linked to the sport of boxing in the minds of moviegoers. For the last couple decades, the Oscar-winning actor has been heavily riffing on his past roles for comedic effect in releases like Analyze This, Meet the Parents and Grudge Match, all of which saw De Niro poke fun at his own tough-guy persona and the various archetypes he’s known for. Now he’s back in the world of boxing again – though with a decidedly more dramatic goal in mind – as a key supporting character in writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s Hands of Stone.
The film stars Edgar Ramírez (Joy) as Panamanian boxer Roberto Durán, who rose to prominence in the early 1970s, but rather than focus solely on his rise and fall (and rise again), Hands of Stone also takes on the story of legendary trainer Ray Arcel (De Niro) and his quest to turn Durán into the world champion. This splintered storytelling approach does take its toll on the narrative clarity of the piece, but more than that, the film’s execution undermines the admittedly compelling tale at its center.
Set against the backdrop of the U.S.-Panama struggle over ownership of the Panama Canal, Hands of Stone aims to draw a parallel between that political conflict and Durán’s own internal journey. However, the uneven script crams in too many subplots and increasingly fraying threads to maintain any sort of consistency. At one point, the film reaches an intriguing anti-climactic point three-quarters of the way through, only to transition into what feels like a tacked-on and incredibly rushed redemption story that robs Durán’s growth of its true significance.
The film does feature some promising supporting roles for veteran performers like John Turturro, Rubén Blades and Ellen Barkin – who notably teamed with De Niro for 1993 drama This Boy’s Life – but, again, Hands of Stone is so overstuffed at just 105 minutes that these actors don’t have enough to work with. Worse yet, Ramírez offers little to get behind in another bland, unremarkable performance, following the Oscar-nominated Joy and the recent Point Break remake. Despite consistently landing roles in major Hollywood productions, the actor still comes off like a blank slate and is sadly not up to the task of bringing much depth to Durán.
While the film ostensibly asks moviegoers to root for Durán, it’s actually his rival Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond IV) that serves as the more memorable presence. Though Raymond has appeared in a few films before, Hands of Stone stands as the R&B singer’s most prominent role in many years, and even if his supporting turn here doesn’t require too much range, he delivers a credible and solid enough performance for moviegoers to hope to see more of him onscreen in the near future.
Over the years, many films have capitalized on the built-in appeal and clear metaphorical subtext that lies within boxing. However, while Oscar winners like Rocky and Million Dollar Baby are renowned for the way in which they intertwine personal stakes with the time their respective fighters spend in the ring, Hands of Stone never brings moviegoers into Durán’s own emotional arc, a feat which even the tepidly received Southpaw accomplished to greater effect.
Instead, the film uses frequent flashbacks, ongoing narration and some egregiously on-the-nose monologues to get inside Durán’s across, believing that these alone will inspire sympathy for the boxer from audiences. It’s a lazy attempt to peel back the layers behind the ego and rage of its lead character, and in an era when films like Creed are so elegantly creating layered portraits full of precision and true emotional weight, there’s no reason Hands of Stone couldn’t have delivered an equally powerful cinematic experience.
Hands of Stone clearly wants to be this generation's Rocky, but the film works so hard to convince moviegoers of its inspirational relevance that it ends up feeling like an empty collection of genre conventions.