It was November 1980 when WBC welterweight champion Roberto Duran, just five months after snatching the title from Sugar Ray Leonard, abandoned their rematch in the eighth round by famously walking away and reportedly saying “No mas (no more),” effectively handing the title back to Leonard and stripping himself of a championship for the next three years (for the record, Duran claims he didn’t say “No mas”). That key moment in Duran’s startling and otherwise incredible career comes late in writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s Hands of Stone, an uneven biopic about Duran that paints the man and his career in overly familiar tones.
As played by Edgar Ramirez, Duran is a true raging bull: a fighting machine who, we realize, is taking out his fury in the ring on the things that tormented him growing up (the lack of closure with his estranged father, the problems of living in American-dominated Panama). But as much as Ramirez puts his heart into the performance, he can’t really rise above the clichéd characterization that the movie offers. His Duran does everything hard: fighting, partying, lovemaking (with schoolgirl-turned-wife Felicidad, played by War Dogs’ Ana de Armas as another boxing drama cliché, a combination of sexpot, nag and Lady Macbeth) and arguing, which he does with just about everyone in earshot. His rise to the top is followed by his inevitable fall from grace: drugs, rapid weight gain and paranoia all conspire to make him even less likable and sympathetic than he was already.
The only relationship that gets more than passing development is between Duran and his trainer, Ray Arcel, who gives Robert De Niro perhaps his best role in several years. Balding and tired, Arcel sees enough potential in Duran to come out of retirement at the risk of his own life (because said retirement was mandated by the Mob, as personified by an oily John Turturro) and take on Duran even though wrangling tigers might be an easier job at this stage of his life. The script and dialogue between the two – especially in Duran’s corner during the movie’s many bouts – is the best part of the entire film, hinting at their complex relationship and giving De Niro enough to lift those scenes above the rest of the picture.
And it needs it, because Hands of Stone is otherwise a mess. Jakubowicz edits large sections of the movie into montages, so we watch vast swaths of Duran’s life as if flipping through a picture book. There are so many secondary characters and narrative strands introduced and forgotten that a scorecard should have been handed out as we sat down. It’s not realistic to expect any filmmaker to cram an entire life, especially one as colorful as Duran’s, into a two-hour movie, but Jakubowicz certainly tries his best. His best, however, is not up to the task and the movie’s nonstop stream of incidents just flies by without making much of an impression. And when the movie introduces other random subplots – including a surprise revelation from Arcel’s past that has no bearing whatsoever on the story at hand – the results are tiring instead of inspiring or captivating.
The best performance after De Niro’s is probably that of singer Usher as Sugar Ray Leonard, with the pop superstar ably capturing Leonard’s intelligence and soft-spoken charm. But no one else beyond that really has a chance to shine, least of all the leading man himself. The biggest problem with Hands of Stone is that despite its attempts to place Duran into a larger social and political context, its chaotic style and default retreat to one boxing movie cliché after another makes it an ultimately empty experience. It doesn’t say anything particularly interesting about the figure of Duran himself and adds nothing new to the boxing genre – not even the fight scenes are staged with any special imagination or gusto.
Coming after last year’s passionate, driven and visceral character study Creed, Hands of Stone disappointingly makes one of boxing’s greatest real-life competitors less interesting, less empathetic and more generic than a fictional upstart portrayed in the former movie by Michael B. Jordan. After two hours with this version of Duran, you’re just as likely to say “No mas” as the real one was.
Hands of Stone is out in theaters Friday (August 26).