There are at least three boxing movies every year and it’s becoming hard to keep track of which one is which, considering they all follow the same pattern of a star rising and falling. The latest one this year is Hands of Stone, which is yet another well-cast film but is ultimately forgettable because of how formulaic the narrative is.
Directed by Venezuelan filmmaker Jonathan Jakubowicz, Hands of Stone chronicles real life Panamanian boxer Roberto Duran (played by Edgar Ramirez) and his trainer Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro) as they aim to beat world champion Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond). The narrative is interspersed with Duran’s relationship with Felicidad Iglesias (Ana de Armas), his anger at the American occupation of Panama and also Arcel’s back-story explaining how he became who he is. It’s kind of a club sandwich of a movie story, which strangely feels like it packs in too many threads to make up for the hackneyed narrative.
Even though we know the story is based on a real-life person, the clichés become painful right from the get go. Duran’s obsessed with boxing only because of he has parental abandonment issues and punches people to assuage his anger. He’s also impulsive and doesn’t follow the rules, which makes Arcel’s job difficult. But at the same time, Arcel also spots a radical genius in that particular habit of his. Once Duran becomes successful, he loses focus on the sport and money issues start causing troubles in his marriage. It’s like a checklist of things you expect from a boxing drama playing out in a boring monotone without any real reason for you to keep watching.
The thing is many of the good boxing films, Million Dollar Baby for instance, also have these clichés but they work because the filmmaker explores the clichés in some interesting visual manner. But the genre has moved on to another level with films like David O Russell’s The Fighter which subverted many of these clichés and found energy and unexpected dark humour to make things interesting. Hands of Stone is unfortunately like none of those films and is exactly as bland as its title. The only single interesting scene in the movie is when Arcel argues with the promoter Carlos (Ruben Blades) over contracts and you begin to wonder why this tiny arc is more watchable than the central character.
The boxing matches are filmed in a very ‘adequate’ manner and despite a strong performance from Ramirez, there is something very routine about the film. De Niro’s role as a trainer is supposed to blow you away considering he played a boxer in Raging Bull but his dull presence seems little more than a quick cash grab. It also often feels like Hands of Stone was a much longer movie originally and most of the good stuff was left out in the cutting room table to make things more exciting. The film, therefore, fails to land in any effective punch. If you’re in the mood for a good boxing film you better throw in the towel with this one.