With “Hands of Stone,” Robert De Niro officially enters his Burgess Meredith-in-“Rocky” phase, bringing the ringside grizzle and rumpled gravitas by the pound. In writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s peppy, none-too-probing biopic of Panamanian champion Roberto Durán, played by Edgar Ramírez, the “Raging Bull” Oscar winner takes the role of legendary trainer Ray Arcel. He’s the man behind the man. And good or bad, there’s always a man behind the man in boxing.
Arcel guided the hands of stone of Durán to world titles and toward the champ’s best, most effective boxing instincts. De Niro and Ramírez do well with a bantamweight script. It’s a strange picture structurally; Durán has to fight for a fair share of his own life story. We see Arcel’s dealings with the mob (John Turturro dines out on a couple of scenes as promoter and underworld killer Frankie Carbo); his estranged and then reunited daughter (Drena De Niro, Robert’s daughter); and his loyal, understanding wife (Ellen Barkin, waiting for worthy scenes that never arrive).
These and other out-of-ring activities share the picture with Durán’s welterweight title matches against Sugar Ray Leonard, portrayed by Usher Raymond with a genial approximation of Leonard’s exuberant footwork and merrily taunting style.
“Hands of Stone” starts in 1971, at Madison Square Garden, proceeding backward to Durán’s childhood in poverty in Panama. The clash between the Panamanians and U.S. troops and residents shapes Durán’s anti-American sentiment at an early age. By the time Arcel gets hold of this brilliant but reckless boxing phenom, he’s full of wild impulses and ruled by a stubborn sense of greatness.
Jakubowicz slams everything forward in “Hands of Stone” at a gotta-get-it-all-in pace, sometimes entertainingly, sometimes in a frustrating blur. The people on the screen have what it takes to sell us a line of used goods. Duran’s whirling courtship of Felicidad Iglesias (Ana de Armas, currently in “War Dogs,” more memorably deployed here) leads to marriage, several children, a betrayal or two and a bedrock of stability. Ramírez, a rough-hewn charmer, too often is undercut by the film’s harried technique. Just when he gets going in a scene, it’s boom, abrupt cut, next vignette. If director Jakubowicz were a boxer, he could use a guy like Arcel to remind him: Films work better with an overall visual strategy.
‘Hands of Stone’
Rated R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity. 1:45.