One June 20th, 1980, Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard took part in what many called the fight of the century. Two titans, at the height of their powers, squared off for 15 brutal rounds.
Hands of Stone follows Roberto Duran’s career from a young kid learning the sweet science in 60’s, to the epic showdown with Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980, and everything that followed.
The film opens with Duran as a poor kid in Panama, stealing mangoes to feed his family and fighting in the streets for money. After Duran captures the eye of a young trainer, he begins getting formally trained to fight and set up with a promoter named Carlos Eleta (Fear the Walking Dead’s Ruben Blades). Eleta is the person responsible for connecting Duran to legendary boxing trainer Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro). Arcel promises to turn Duran into a champion and that’s exactly what he does, and more. He turned Duran into the most devastating boxer of his generation.
Duran plows through his opponents, but the real challenge was taking on America’s greatest fighter, Sugar Ray Leonard.
This story could’ve been a paint-by-the-numbers boxing movie or some rags to riches tale. Instead, the film focuses on Duran’s love for his country and how the United State’s presences in Panama stirred up so much anger in him. It’s as much about who Duran was/is as it is a story about boxing.
The talented Ana de Armas, who plays Duran’s wife Felicidad, is great. Thanks to Tessa Thompson’s performance in Creed, filmmakers are learning not to simplify the role of a fighter’s wife to “panicked cheerleader” or “disapproving partner.” Armas is given a lot to do and is as much a part of Duran’s story as his trainers and the opponents he faced.
Edgar Ramirez is on the short list of Actors Who Are Good in Everything (see: Point Break, Wrath of the Titans). It’s no surprise; Ramirez gives another dominant performance as Duran. He’s got the physique, the bravado, and style down. He was also able to capture Duran’s insecurities and his love for his family and country. Ramirez is a tough guy and perfect to play a boxer who never lacked toughness, inside or outside the ring.
Opposite Ramirez for most of the film is Usher, who is tasked with matching skills with De Niro and Ramirez. Usher doesn’t miss a beat – no pun intended. Most people would never consider Usher an actor, but he shows she can literally spar with the best of them. Usher nails Sugar Ray’s characteristics, especially when he flashes that signature smile. Usher brilliantly uses Sugar Ray’s smile as a mask and knows exactly when to let it shine.
Where the film nails the performances, it misses out on how big the fights were. How big Duran vs. Leonard was is almost a story itself. The story doesn’t give enough attention to Duran being 71-1 before first fight with Leonard. It doesn’t establish how big of a star Leonard was at the time. Or that Duran was considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world during that time. Or how big of a deal “No Mas” was during their second fight. The film missed the mark on having a momentous third act that could’ve really put the movie over the top.
The boxing scenes are good. Nothing exceptional happens, but it’s enough to keep audiences entertained. All the interesting things in Duran’s life happen outside the ring – his country, his family, and his relationship with Ray Arcel.
Hands of Stone is good boxing film, but it’s an excellent film to showcase the life of one of sport’s greatest competitors. The life and trials of Roberto Duran were happening outside the ring and those were the most interesting parts of his life. The film does an amazing job capturing that, even if the boxing slightly misses the mark.