MOVIE REVIEW: “Hands of Stone”

(Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company via EPK.tv)

“HANDS OF STONE” — 4 STARS

Thirteen months ago, this very writer declared “if you’ve seen one boxing movie, you’ve seen them all” while reviewing the disappointing “Southpaw.” Even after the greatness of “Creed” that followed four months later, this sports film sub-genre’s formula of rag-to-riches, redemption, training, mentors, and montages still holds true more often than not. Excitement is one spicy ingredient that can be added to the formula to separate the mediocre like “Southpaw” from the exceptional like “Creed.” Turn our heads, raise our pulse rates, make us want to watch, and you’ll have an audience.

To use a boxing term favored by commentators, “Hands of Stone” has a “big fight feel.” The ferocious energy and volatile personality of Edgar Ramirez’s Roberto Duran emits enough heat to liquefy lead. Add in the smooth and suave Sugar Ray Leonard, played by a game Usher Raymond IV, as the titan to topple and the effect is multiplied. “Hands of Stone” doesn’t break any new ground, but it operates with low mistakes to be a step above competent and solid within the sports film genre.

Chronicling Duran’s rise and peak, the film begins with his bare-knuckle fighting origin as an undisciplined and illiterate pre-teen on the streets of Panama City, one fueled by resentment towards the American father than abandoned him and his mother. When the gloves are off, he is smitten and betrothed to his wife Felicidad (“War Dogs” love interst Ana de Armas). Showing promise and ring sense, Roberto is groomed by local trainer Plomo Quinones (Pedro Perez) before being backed by the wealthy manager Carlos Eleta (Ruben Blades). Upon winning his Madison Square Garden debut stateside, Eleta courts Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro), a retired and legendary boxing trainer, to take Roberto to the next level.

Cultivating Roberto’s mind to accept tutelage and think strategy before power and rage, Ray hones a world-class fighter that finds unparalleled success in the ring. His trajectory puts him on a collision course with American idol and undefeated welterweight champion Sugar Ray Leonard. Their initial personal and professional clashes and ongoing rivalry would go on to define both of their careers.

The cast is filled with dead ringers from top to bottom who emote and thicken the plot with manageable layers of characterization to achieve more than merely looking the part. Sharing the marque rather than stealing it, De Niro delivers stellar corner encouragement and stays in his lane, allowing the true stars to emerge. The Venezuelan Ramirez and Cuban Armas can burst thermometers together, as could Usher and his megawatt visage. For a film being marketed to a mainstream North American audience, writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz skips translation contrivances to favor English in favor of maintaining a high percentage of ethnic soundtrack choices and full Spanish dialogue in a majority of the film’s scenes shared by its diverse Hispanic performers. Muchas gracias, senor.

“Hands of Stone” will not win over hardline technical boxing purists looking for a clinic on the sport. Greater films have mastered that level of art. Instead, this film sides with flashy style over pugilistic realism in the effort to maximize cinematic enjoyment and visual trickery.

Rick Avery, the stunt coordinator of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and “Creed” technical advisor Robert Sale coach the in-ring actors and stunt doubles to make every movement look like a million bucks, especially when backed a sound design that must have found new and creative ways to mix the breaking of chicken bones with fictional punches (meant entirely as a compliment). Enveloping the stuntwork with optical pizzazz, Jakubowicz enlisted two key contributors who are also full-fledged filmmakers stepping into technical roles. The ever-circulating and well-lit camera arcs from cinematographer Miguel Ioann Littin Menz and the blend of hypercut fight editing from “Machete” director Ethan Maniquis emphatically deliver kinetic spectacle that works for the all-important scenes in the ring.

Where the film recovers the purists is with its purposeful tone of authenticity and shrewd creative choices. There was never going to be a route where a cradle-to-the-grave biography for a legend that fought until age 50 in 2002 was going to fit in a taut 105 minutes. Jakubowski smartly focused on the Leonard rivalry, used his montages to advance time instead of stall, and still makes room for an anchor of parallel history. Filmed on the same Panama City streets the fighter grew up on, “Hands of Stone” mirrors Duran’s story with the up-and-down struggles of national identity and historical contention with the United States over the Panama Canal. Best of all, in and out of the ring, the films survives most of the fact-checking targeting its anecdotes and backstories.

LESSON #1: PREGNANCY CAN RESULT FROM SEX — With a belly laugh, “Hands of Stone” shifts from the moans of steamy passion to the wails of childbirth pain with the smoothest transition of a blunt truth delivered in long time. You’ll see and so did Duran eight children later living high on the hog.

LESSON #2: THE MENTAL COMPONENT OF BOXING — Head games can come from your opponent or your own self, manifesting as doubt and fear or confidence and resolve. Concentration becomes as essential as punching accuracy. Your mind can betray your fists.

LESSON #3: BOXING REQUIRES STRATEGY — Bigger, stronger, and faster are all winning traits, but David can always beat Goliath with the right mentality and perfectly executed game plan. Great boxers visual a fight and every contingency possible from beginning to end. Their strategic focus keeps them in every contest.

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