'Hands of Stone' Review: Robert De Niro 'Occasionally Upstages' Star Edgar Ramirez

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Rated R

Three out of five stars

Roberto Duran, hands down, was one of the greatest boxers of all time. Suffice it to say, a great boxer deserves a great biopic. "Hands of Stone" is not that, but it’s not bad, either.

The movie’s biggest problem is that it sometimes feels like a biopic of Duran’s trainer, Ray Arcel, played by Robert De Niro, in what I would consider one of his better performances in recent years. Arcel, like Duran, is a legend. He also narrates the movie, but because of the way the script is constructed, he occasionally upstages the film’s protagonist.

Writer and director Jonathan Jakubowicz employs a number of flashbacks to tell his story. We first meet Duran as an adult (played by Edgar Ramirez) as he fights at New York’s Madison Square Garden. After the fight, his manager arranges for him to meet Arcel. Years earlier, Arcel promised the mob he’d no longer work in boxing (it’s complicated), but he agrees to train Duran for free. In the context of the story, the scene feels a bit disjointed -- and later, it seems incongruous with the story’s chronology. And incongruity is a problem with Jakubowicz’s script.

Jakubowicz also takes us back to Duran’s childhood in Panama, where he takes some historic license with Duran’s family history and entry into boxing, but he still gives us the basics. Duran is a product of Panama’s tense relationship with the U.S. His father was a U.S. soldier who abandoned him at a young age, and he was raised on the streets, stealing food to feed his family and friends. Eventually, the young man convinces a trainer at a local gym to school him, and Duran soon becomes the best boxer in Panama.

Historically, Duran’s defining moments are his two fights with Sugar Ray Leonard (played by Usher Raymond, better known as the singer, Usher). Both fights are depicted in the movie, but the build-up to the first was so bad, I didn’t realize it was about to happen. While the fight choreography is well done, the production values felt and looked cheap. Still, Ramirez’s humanity and machismo carries the day here.

"Hands of Stone’s" screenplay has some valiant moments, but a weak structure mostly undermines Duran’s terrific story. What saves this movie are the superlative performances from Ramirez, De Niro, and Ana de Armas, who plays Duran’s wife, Felicidad.