Film: “Hands Of Stone”; Director: Jonathan Jakubowicz; Cast: Edgar Ramirez and Robert De Niro; Rating: ****
A grumpy trainer, an abrasive young self-destructive boxer…win lose…lose win…haven’t we seen it all in numerous films of such far-ranging calibre and curiosity as “Million Dollar Baby”, “Mary Kom” and this year’s “Saala Khadoos”?
So what makes “Hands Of Stone” a comfortable fit? It’s the sheer energy that outflows from the narrative, dragging and leading with it the characters who are as inflammatory as they are intimate.
Straight off the very watchable Venezuelan import Edgar Ramirez, who is currently jostling for one of the top spots in Hollwood, is the mainstay of this pugilistic treat. Clenched, tense, seething with the anger of cultural injustice and racial segregation, Ramirez’s portrayal of the real-life boxer Roberto Duran is one of the most engaging true-life characters I’ve seen on screen from any country.
Ramirez’s Duran shows an abundance of disrespect and insensitivity towards all those who are close to him: His coach and mentor the legendary former boxer Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro), his girlfriend (Ana De Armas), and his friends from his days of poverty struggle — there is sad scene where he insults a friend at a party — and finally his own talent and skills in the boxing ring.
In one of the many arresting volatile sequences in this angry film, Duran is shown smashing his former coach’s swanky cars as the coach watches from his home’s balcony, unshaken by his former pupil’s aggressive tantrum.
This is a skilled cocksure seething boxer whose atrocious behaviour is condoned by everyone who comes in contact him. There is no other reason to like Duran except that he is played by Edgar Ramirez, an actor so skilled he makes the scenes in the boxing ring look like extensions of his character’s long-festering angst.
The well-crafted but eminently predictable film moves back in time to show Duran’s dangerous life as a young illegal migrant in the US. As Panamanians hoist their flag on American land, the little protagonist steals apples to share with his large family. This kind of unabashed sentimentality goes well with the film’s tenor of directness.
Duran’s rise to the status of an American sports hero is sudden swift and destructive. Fellow-Venezuelan director Jonathan Jakubowicz taps his leading man’s migratory indignation effectively and powerfully. Ramirez in the ring and outside it, conducts himself with a ruinous arrogance reminiscent of Robert De Niro’s boxer Jake LaMotta in Martin Scorcese’s “Raging Bull”.
“Hands Of Stone” doesn’t aspire to be great cinema like “Raging Bull”. It is self-assertively confident about being an engaging rise and fall saga with some heart-stopping fights in the ring.
The soundtrack from the 1980s including whiffs of singer Donna Summer to show Duran’s descent into hedonism, is interestingly nostalgic without wasting time on mourning for the past.
Even the way Duran meets his long-estranged father, conveys the sense of perfunctoriness that we soon recognise to be the film’s chosen narrative mood.
The film’s greatest strength is its fallen hero’s weaknesses. As Ramirez strips Duran naked in front of the camera, we watch a straightforward moral fable told with no elements of the unexpected. Chapters from Duran’s life come undone with an easy clarity and fluency that disregards the deeper thrusts in the protagonist’s shallow characterisation.
Surprisingly, Robert De Niro as Duran’s coach and mentor looks disinterested in the goings-on. Perhaps, that is part of his character’s long and winding lifescape’s experiences reaching a saturation point. Musician Usher has a substantial role as Duran’s nemesis and main opponent in the ring. Usher comes across as more of a poet than a fighter in the film that has no room for or patience with poetry.
But then again, I may be reading too much in a film that commands us to go nowhere beyond where the director takes us.