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"HANDS OF STONE"
(2016) (Edgar Ramirez, Robert De Niro) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A headstrong boxer must contend with what success does to his career and life.
PLOT:
Having grown up poor in Panama and viewing the U.S. military occupation of the Canal Zone, Roberto Duran (EDGAR RAMIREZ) has long had a distaste for all things American. Now a young adult, he's risen to the top of Panama's boxing world thanks to the work of his trainer Nestor Quinones and businessman-promoter, Carlos Eleta (RUBEN BLADES). The latter needs someone to take Roberto to the next level and believes that Ray Arcel (ROBERT DE NIRO) is the man for the job. After all, he's previously trained and managed 18 boxing champions, but was forced out of the sport by mob figures not happy with his desire to take boxing national via TV.

That's just fine by his wife, Stephanie (ELLEN BARKIN), but Ray can't resist the temptation of having another champion and thus offers to train Roberto for free, something he hopes will be okay with mob representative Frankie Carbo (JOHN TURTURRO). Despite his tendencies to be a hot-head and ignore Ray's advice, Roberto becomes an even bigger boxing sensation, eventually getting the chance to battle Sugar Ray Leonard (USHER) in the ring, with Roberto's wife, Felicidad (ANA DE ARMAS), enjoying the spoils of his victories, as does his childhood street mentor, Chaflan (OSCAR JAENADA). But when Roberto does the same and quickly lets himself fall out of shape, it's a question about whether he'll be able to get back to the top of his game for a rematch with Leonard.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
I'm guessing there are plenty of resourceful people who had uneventful childhoods, didn't battle many if any inner demons on their climb to the top, and didn't let success go to their heads and subsequently throw most if not everything away, only to finally see the light and rebound. While avoiding all of that is certainly admirable and enviable in real life, it would make for a fairly boring movie. After all, having no conflict means there's no real drama and without that, you likely have a snoozer on your hands.

That's why biopics that do get made almost always feature protagonists with one or more of the following: Some degree of a troubled upbringing, lots of internal and external challenges and conflicts going after their goal, and eventual success going down the drain due to excessive behavior on their part. One can now add "Hands of Stone" to that growing list of such formulaic films that more often than not focus on singers and other such entertainers.

Here, however, the story revolves around the life and times of Roberto Duran, the Panamanian boxer who rose to prominence in the sport in the 1970s and '80s, was one of the few pugilists to defeat Sugar Ray Leonard, and then gained a lot of notoriety for being out of shape for his 1980 rematch with Leonard where he famously uttered "No mas" in the eighth round and promptly stopped boxing. All of that and the story of him growing up in Panama during unrest related to American control of the Panama Canal Zone would certainly seem to have the potential to make for an interesting film.

Alas, not only does the pic -- written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz -- suffer from the aforementioned troubled path to success to failure storyline, it's also bedeviled by the usual boxing movie formula. You know, the one where a talented but unpolished boxer gets teamed up with a seasoned veteran trainer who introduces new boxing styles and leads the fighter to greater success, all as shown through plenty of training and fighting montages.

While that worked in last year's surprisingly good "Creed," it simply doesn't here. And that's not only due to those two prominent problems, but also the overall episodic nature of the storytelling, some related rough to bad editing, and a protagonist we don't ever really like due to his abrasive and brash nature.

Of course, that sort of character can still be fascinating to watch, but only if the material is handled just right and the performance is magnetic. Here, Édgar Ramírez plays Duran, and while I have no idea if he nails the real man or not (I only saw Duran in those fights on TV and thus know nothing else about him), he doesn't give the generally unlikable character enough of a mesmerizing aura to make us care. That's not to say the performance is bad as it's actually decent, and there are plenty of flashbacks showing Duran's childhood to let us know part of the reason he acts the way he now does as an adult. Even so -- and while others might have a different reaction -- I simply didn't care and was never drawn in enough to want to keep watching him or the movie.

His counterpart is played by Robert De Niro as veteran trainer Ray Arcel who comes out retirement -- that was forced by the mob as personified by their front man in the present played by John Turturro -- to create another champion. That doesn't sit well with the mob or Ray's wife (a mostly wasted Ellen Barkin), but he perseveres.

Considering the actor starred in "Raging Bull" so many years ago, some might be led to believe this would mirror Sylvester Stallone's similar character in "Creed" as the retired boxer turned trainer of a new talent. Granted, Rocky and Apollo Creed's son are fictitious characters while Duran, Arcel, and Jake LaMotta are/were real people, so that couldn't happen. Even so, and especially with De Niro seemingly phoning in his performance, that mentor-mentee relationship and chemistry pale considerably here as compared to what played out in Ryan Coogler's far superior film.

That offering (and a few others before it) managed to breathe some new life into a cinematic sports genre that had become somewhat stale and predictable. Unfortunately, "Hand of Stone" doesn't follow that course and instead relies on too many formulas in telling a tale that's far too familiar in too many ways to make us care about the outcome. The film rates as a 4 out of 10.




Reviewed July 25, 2016 / Posted August 26, 2016


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