If there is one thing that the Weinstein Company is known for, it’s their steady stream of generic to mediocre biopics. Though usually their films aren’t all that bad, they don’t tend to be all that ambitious, instead relying on true story source material that can be hammered into a standard underdog narrative for a cheap, audience-pleasing turnaround. And while that’s all well and good, their latest effort, Hands of Stone, doesn’t even rise to the occasion as a generic biopic, let alone a decent film in its own right.
Ostensibly the true story of how Panamanian boxer Roberto Durán (Édgar Ramirez) rose through the ranks of the U.S. boxing world to win and lose the lightweight championship to Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher) under the tutelage of trainer Ray Arcel (Robert DeNiro), the screenplay doesn’t play out so much like a story as it does a series of anecdotes and factual tidbits only superficially researched. It’s as if the filmmakers overheard someone else’s conversation on how to write a biopic through a sound-muffling piece of drywall, then promptly jumped on to Wikipedia to copy and paste aspects of Durán’s life. For example, it’s established in the first scene of the movie that Durán doesn’t like Arcel very much, yet over the course of a flashback Durán is suddenly training with the guy for no discernible reason other than the fact that that is what actually happened. The screenplay doesn’t inject any pathos into Durán’s story, which causes the entire production to play out like reenactment scenes one would find in a documentary, but without the context that a documentarian would provide.
This in turn makes Durán an extremely unlikeable protagonist. The film makes a couple passing attempts to justify his less admirable behaviors based on his poor and oppressive upbringing in Panama, but as Ramirez portrays Durán is a vile, selfish, egotistical, misogynistic bully. As the film shows us, he stalks his love interest until she inexplicably falls in love with him, then proceeds to cheat on her, and on one occasion even assault her. He doesn’t listen to the advice his trainer gives him, he is rude to virtually everyone, he threatens the wife of an opponent, and he just generally comes across as a brute. Writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz attempts to give him a “Save the Cat” moment of immediate relatability via a flashback where he steals food for his poor family as a child, but young Durán is so divorced from the character we see for the rest of the film that it doesn’t work. This might have been somewhat forgivable if Durán exhibited any sort of developmental arc throughout the course of the narrative, but the closest we get is a half-assed shedding of his pride that happens off-screen within the last ten minutes.
This is only weakened by the incredibly poor performances of the supporting cast. Ana de Armas as Durán’s wife Felicidad is alternately a gold-digging manipulator and a vapid non-entity, neither of which is compelling and are equally infuriating for their inconsistency. Usher is not demonstrating any level of acting skill as Sugar Ray Leonard, primarily due to the fact that he can’t seem to wipe the damn smile off his face long enough to show any other emotion. I’m happy that you’re happy to be in a movie, Usher, but you do have a job to do. Perhaps the worst offender, though, is Robert DeNiro. It’s rather disingenuous to give Arcel’s character as much screentime as he gets, particularly because his character arc is even more tacked on than Durán’s and seemingly only gets near-equal shrift because the studio felt it needed a white lead in order to make the film marketable. DeNiro seems like he might have realized this, because he gives the same level of energetic performance that he gives during a late-night interview, which is to say that he’s dead emotionless.
Even at only 105 minutes, Hands of Stone is an exercise in obligation, tedium, and boredom. It is neither a film that is fascinating in its subject matter, nor in its bungled execution. Some may defend the film based on the fact that it is based upon true events, but it is the job of the filmmakers and the actors to give such a story meaning. Without a developmental character arc or even especially engaging boxing performances, there’s nothing the film gives you that a quick round of internet research wouldn’t. Hands of Stone was a tiring experience that only makes me more angry the more I think about it. Durán likely deserves a better telling of his story; for that matter, so does that story’s audience.