Roberto Duran remains the greatest lightweight boxer in history, and one of the most celebrated fighters, period. But unlike such legends of the ring as Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, or Mike Tyson, he never had a very idiosyncratic boxing style. He didn’t dance, or rope-a-dope, or use his fists like a Mack truck. He was a paragon of classic quickness and power, a bruiser who wasted no time going in for the kill.
“Hands of Stone,” a Duran biopic that lifts its title from his fists-of-fury nickname, has a tone that very much mirrors Duran’s mode of fighting. Directed by the Venezuelan-born Jonathan Jakubowicz, who also wrote the script, the film punches ahead in a conventional, aggressive, no-frills way. At this point, of course, the bar for boxing films has been set rather staggeringly high. “Raging Bull” turned the pugilistic melodrama into Shakespearean blood opera (it also had the greatest fight scenes that had ever been staged), and in recent years other movies have only built upon its achievement. “The Fighter,” with its dizzying use of hand-held camera, put the audience even more close-up into the ring, and “Creed,” with its fight scenes coming at you in astonishingly fluid unbroken takes, just upped the existential intensity. “Hands of Stone,” by contrast, gets the job done, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that you’re watching a routinely conceived, rather generic boxing flick. It’s utterly competent, yet it makes Duran’s story seem a little so-what? The movie may wind up being positioned as yet another “prestige” spectacle of fight-club awards bait, but in this case the prospects look modest.
The film’s limitation begins with the reality that we’re never asked to feel very close to Duran as a character — and not because he’s such a cocky, angry, even abusive SOB. (That didn’t keep us from having a profound identification with Jake LaMotta.) Rather, as played by Edgar Ramirez, he’s a hothead who rarely slips out of his standard, strutting mode of bellicose self-satisfaction. He’s drafted into the boxing ring as a young boy growing up in Panama, and what drives him from the start is that he’s got a chip on his shoulder a mile wide. It’s all about the United States — the country that colonized Panama by building, and controlling, the Canal Zone starting in 1904 — and also about his father, who abandoned him and (to add insult to injury) was an American. The Roberto who emerges from this double slap of humiliation is a blustery macho with a hidden inferiority complex. When he spies, on the street, a precocious schoolgirl named Felicidad (played as an angel of fire by Ana de Armas), and announces within 30 seconds of meeting that he wants to marry her, we recognize a young man’s bravado, but it already appears that Roberto’s desire to dominate is out of control.
He’s set up as a world-class fighter by Carlos Eleta (Rubén Blades), the richest man in Panama, but the key figure in his boxing life isn’t this moneybags manager. It’s the legendary trainer Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro), who in the course of a 50-year career has trained 18 world champions, but he was drummed out of the business by the Mob, all for the crime of wanting to take boxing national by setting up his own television deals. In Roberto, he glimpses a hungry fury that makes him want to get back in the game — though to placate the gangster who forced him to retire (played by John Turturro in a performance so understated that you wish he always played quiet gangsters), he’s forced to take no payment for his services.
Ray is 72 by the time he hooks up with Roberto, and De Niro, with scraggly gray-white hair framing a high forehead that makes him look like Lee Strasberg in “The Godfather, Part II,” plays him as a disarmingly articulate mentor-coach, an analyst of the sweet science, one who keeps insisting to Roberto that a winning bout comes down to strategy. Every detail counts, like the way that Ray, at ringside, combs back Roberto’s hair between rounds, so that he’ll come out each time looking fresh, as a way to psych out his opponent. De Niro, his dialogue salted with Yiddishisms like schmendrick, plays Ray as a tough nut of decency, and he’s by far the most compelling presence in the film.
The trajectory of Duran’s career comes off as fairly standard, and Jakubowicz, though he’s an energized filmmaker, doesn’t find many nuances within the situations. Roberto keeps scoring knockouts on his way to the top, and then he becomes the lightweight champion of the world by clobbering Sugar Ray Leonard, who up until then has been undefeated. Leonard is played by the pop star Usher (here billed as Usher Raymond IV), and it’s a nifty piece of casting, because the actor, with a touch of prosthetics, doesn’t just look like Leonard, he embodies his exuberant nimble-kill spirit. Duran is able to undermine Sugar Ray with sadistic psychological warfare: He bursts into a cafeteria to insult Leonard’s wife, which is really his way of luring Sugar Ray into his own aggressive orbit and away from Leonard’s subtler fight game.
And then comes the downfall. Roberto’s manager, eager to make an $8 million score, arranges with Don King — played with wily finesse by Reg. E. Cathey — for Duran to fight Sugar Ray again, just five months later. Duran hasn’t stopped partying to celebrate his first victory, and he’s put on 40 pounds, which he has to lose. But the real thing he’s lost is his desire. The rematch that takes place in the New Orleans Superdome on Nov. 25, 1980, is one of the most famously strange boxing matches in history, because Duran fought it for a while, and then he just…gave up. No one quite knew why, but it should be the job of a biopic to take a legendary event like that and reconfigure it into a dramatic experience, letting us see it from the inside. But in “Hands of Stone,” it is just one more incident served up with explosive yet rather unexciting neutrality.