Biopics are a funny genre of movie, putting the complications and complexities of a real life in competition with a director and actor’s ability to succinctly and entertainingly portray their “character”, in both a metaphorical and very real sense. This dichotomy turns out to be more of a struggle than anything else in writer/director Johnathan Jakubowicz’s film studying the life of Panamanian boxer Roberto Durán, Hands of Stone. Starring Édgar Ramírez as Durán and Robert De Niro as is trainer Ray Arcel, this American-Panamanian joint production is very much a mess from beginning to end: the “hero” of the film is a bit of a reprehensible character, the pacing is absolutely decimated by terrible storyboarding, and in the end there is no real meaning to the film as its dual narratives of Roberto and his country Panama are caught up in a sort of jumbled mishmash of ideas and themes that leave both stories wanting for more.
First of all, my personal experience watching this was unique: I am plenty familiar with American entertainment/propaganda films (re: American Sniper) but this was my first experience with the same genre from another country. Hands of Stone is very much a pro-Panama film, and while there is of course nothing wrong with that perspective, it executes it in a very muddled and confusing manner. While a great deal of the inter-country (and inter-personal) conflict is based around the Panama Canal, this thematic never really develops across the film. Mirrored with Durán’s rise to success, we see Jimmy Carter’s announcement of eventually relinquishing the canal to the Panamanians, however this is followed with Durán’s descent into debauchery, culminating in a scene where in the background, on the television, Ronald Reagan is refuting that relinquishment. However, this is the beginning and the end of what could have been a potentially amazing dichotomy of thematics running throughout the film. There is zero mention or even reference to the United States invasion of Panama that later occurred and seemingly would have been a real climactic point of this relationship. Even Durán’s initial success against an American opponent, followed by his defeat, is sloppily edited together and doesn’t run coherently with the Panama-America storyline.
Also, just why is this movie using Durán as the stand in for Panama when it makes every effort to make him seem like a complete ass? Due to the awkward timing throughout the movie (unpredictable jump cuts move time forward days, months, years; the period of time is rarely explained) we have little sense of Durán’s age as lead actor Édgar Ramírez looks the same throughout the film, not aging a day as years supposedly go by. This makes his romantic pursuance of a schoolgirl (who does end up being his wife, Felicidad, played by Ana de Armas) a bit disconcerting, notably a scene in which he forcibly pushes her into an alley to declare his love for her upon meeting her. Scenes like this give what I believe to be an unintentional dark overtone to the entire film. Why is this man romantically pursuing a child? Why is he so physical and why isn’t this being addressed? In fact, a good portion of characterization is simply breezed over throughout the film. Durán commits excesses of egotism with such acts as naming every single one of his sons “Roberto”, sleeping under piles of naked women, extensive drug use (though this is merely suggested, not one line or pill is shown throughout the film in what becomes a hilarious guessing game of “what are they doing?”). All of these are glossed over as either personality quirks or minor inconveniences to be overcome by our great national hero, Roberto!
Ramírez does his best with this underwhelming script, but unfortunately his role is reduced to one of a Panamanian rock star combined with every single trope from a sports comeback story you can imagine. De Niro bluffs his way through another performance, very much in his recent mode of sleepwalking through roles. The ancillary characters are completely forgettable and behave purely in the most stereotypical or predictable manners. Even Usher's turn as Sugar Ray Leonard is swept away in a wave of bad dialogue and minimal characterization. His Sugar Ray has spirit, but no punch, no decisive moment that gives him any sort of time to shine. Ana de Armas gives a very melodramatic performance, even bordering on soap opera, as Felicidad. However, the most grievous faults in this movie don't even bear that much upon the cast, rather, the extremely condensed pace at which Durán's life events are played out.
Even the actual “no más” event during his rematch with Sugar Ray (upon which the whole movie supposedly pivots) is treated with little care and seems like an afterthought to the director’s desire for flashy characters with little to no substance. In fact, Durán’s entire boxing career seems to play second fiddle throughout the whole movie; however, the themes are so muddled, it is hard to tell what it plays second fiddle to. And again, I cannot emphasize how terrible the pacing was in this film. Pacing is something that lots of films have trouble getting quite right, however Hands of Stone completely decimates any sense of context the viewer may have throughout the entire movie.
I walked into this biopic certainly expecting quite a bit more. I wasn’t exactly expecting Raging Bull, but ticket buyers deserve a way better performance than De Niro offers in this film, and he is capable of doing much better. However, maybe not with this script, as it is difficult to sense any character development through the muddied wall of confusion that suffuses the entire narrative. The themes and motifs of the movie itself are completely disjointed, serving not only no purpose in complimenting each other but also confusing each other into a serpentine dichotomy of fuck-all. I wish I could’ve seen Hands of Stone and enjoyed it for the inspirational sport/political story it was clearly meant to be, but all I got was some ham-fisted performances from good actors, pacing that would unsync an atomic clock, and more questions than answers about Roberto Durán and his entire legacy.
[easyreview title= "Review of Hands of Stone" cat1title="Bart's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="1.0" overall= false]