“Hands of Stone ” is a sprawling yet fairly conventional biopic about the Panamanian boxing champion Roberto Duran — a man The Associated Press once declared the 7th greatest fighter and No. 1 lightweight of the 20th century. For the uninitiated, the title refers to Duran’s nickname. He was known for packing a mighty hit and (usually) winning.
When he faced Sugar Ray Leonard for the Welterweight title in 1980, he was 71-1. He won that match too, only to forfeit it six months later in a bizarre re-match that’s become known as the “No Mas Fight.” Popular myth would have us all believe that Duran said “No Mas” to end the match partway through. He’d fallen out of shape in the months between the two fights.
That event is dramatized in writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s film, with Edgar Ramirez as Duran and the singer Usher Raymond as Leonard. But while it might be the showdown that has cemented Duran’s unique place in history (even if he probably didn’t utter those words), it’s hardly the main event of “Hands of Stone,” which strives to give context to Duran’s life — complications and all.
Our entry to the story is oddly through the famed coach Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro), who comes to observe Duran in action before agreeing to train him. He’s already great at this point, but Arcel is there to take him to the next level — namely the United States. Duran isn’t interested at first — he hates the U.S. for what they’ve done to his country. The framework allows “Hands of Stone” to jump back in time to a glossy reenactment of the 1964 riots over sovereignty of the Panama Canal.
Duran, born in 1951, grew up in this heightened time which would color his political views into adulthood. An impoverished kid, he started brawling in the streets when he was just eight and fighting professionally by the age of 16. The film follows the standard biopic beats in recounting his scrappy origins and his aggressive pursuit of Felicidad Iglesias (portrayed by the Cuban actress Ana de Armas, who also plays the significant other role in “War Dogs”) and the quick, and humorous, expansion of their family.
He eventually gives himself over to Arcel’s counsel and they start down the path of making him a superstar, which of course leads to money, drugs and a hedonistic abandon that we’ve seen in films like this so, so many times.
With this entire story to work with, it is a little confusing as to why Jakubowicz packs in so much about Arcel as well — from his weird beef with the mob to his relationship with his wife (Ellen Barkin) and the secret daughter he’s hidden from her. Certainly an interesting man, worthy probably of his own biopic, but his arc here has the feel of an unnecessary side show. But it’s De Niro in a boxing movie, so co-lead it is.
Distractions aside, Ramirez and De Niro prove to be a good pairing. De Niro takes on the air of a kindly father figure — one who doesn’t yell and berate from the corner of the ring, but instead gently combs Duran’s dripping wet hair back in between rounds. The idea is that he’ll psychologically disarm opponents by looking improbably fresh, showered and groomed in the middle of a fight. Ramirez is solidly compelling as Duran, the complicated pit bull that he is, but the audience is kept at a distance and isn’t given an opportunity to truly empathize.
“Hands of Stone” is a solid film, but you just can’t help shake the feeling that we’ve seen it all before.
Cast: Edgar Ramirez, Robert De Niro, Ana De Armas, Usher Raymond IV, Ruben Blades, Ellen Barkin, John Turturro.
Writer-director: Jonathan Jabukowicz.
A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 116 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, sexual situations, boxing violence. Playing at area theaters.