Boxing movies — the classic Raging Bull excepted — tend to punch the same way: Underdog hits it big, then blows it before launching a comeback. From Rocky to Creed, that’s been the drill. Hands of Stone, the true story of 1970’s lightweight champ Roberto Duran (Edgar Ramirez), never strays far from the path. But the Venezuelan-born writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz (Secuestro Express) knows how to muscle up momentum and bring the best out of actors.
Ramirez (Carlos) excels as Duran, the natural street brawler from Panama whose hot temper often gets the best of him. His cocky charm manages to seduce Felicidad (War Dogs‘ gorgeous Ana de Armas), the schoolgirl who becomes his wife. Otherwise, Duran is pissed at everyone, from the U.S. with its big-stick control of the Panama Canal to anyone who thinks he can boss Duran around. Enter Robert De Niro, the raging bull himself, as Ray Arcel, the trainer who has molded 18 raw fighters into world champs. Arcel has been sidelined by the mob — here repped by John Turturro — but he gets in on a technicality (the trainer works for free). Duran rails at his manager Carlos Eleta (Rubén Blades) for even suggesting that this gringo join their team. Famous last words. Arcel sweet talks Duran into learning how to strategize in the ring to bring out the best in a power fighter his fans call Manos de Pieda (Hands of Stone).
Between rounds, Arcel combs Duran’s hair (it becomes their signature gesture) so his opponent will think Duran is fresh and unfazed. De Niro is dynamite, finding the quiet center of a complicated man. It’s an award-caliber performance. Duran fought in four different weight classes (lightweight, welterweight, light middleweight and middleweight), but the film focuses on his 1980 title bout in Montreal against the undefeated WBC welterweight champ Sugar Ray Leonard, who lost the 15-round brawl in a unanimous decision. Leonard is played, with agility and charisma, by Usher (billed here as Usher Raymond IV). The fight made Duran a national hero in Panama. It also led to his gaining weight and getting lazy. So when Leonard demanded a quick rematch, Duran wasn’t ready. Half way into the eighth round, Duran stopped the fight, allegedly saying “No más” (no more). Duran disputes this, but the film shows how the world picked up on the phrase and sent Duran to the mat in disgrace. Jakubowicz stages Duran’s comeback along generic lines. But when Ramirez and De Niro go at it in and out the ring, Hands of Stone shows it knows how to dazzle and get in its licks.