When it comes to sports on film, none transfer to a composed and contained visual medium quite like boxing. Two men, and in some cases women, square off in a confined arena below the spotlights of show time. The action is fast, but not too fast, and in the end, a winner’s hand is raised while the music soars.
And while boxing provides the draw for Hands of Stone — based on the true-life story of Panamanian champ, Roberto Durán (Edgar Ramírez) — the movie offers little else in the dramatics department to make it a full course meal.
Durán was an ace boxer, one of the best to ever live, but for Durán, it wasn’t a choice, it was his only way out. Durán grew up in Panama during the 1950s when America occupied, and violently protected, the Canal. Durán witnesses Nationalistic pride and American violence first hand — the movie presents this scene as Durán’s Rosebud — and for the rest of his life, Durán saw himself in direct opposition to the occupiers and all they stood for, namely wealth. American wealth. Boxing made Durán rich but in the Robin Hood sense. He was beating the rich to give to the poor.
Though Durán was an icon and a philanthropist of Panama, he possessed the same qualities he detested in his opposition. When Durán saw something he wanted, he took it. When he saw the girl he had to have, Felicidad (Ana de Armas), he had her. This scene, like the rest of the movie, is presented in blistering montage with a swirling camera that constantly roams around Durán and Felicidad. The camera refuses to sit still, and for the remainder of the movie, it swirls and dances around Durán; his wife; his opponent, Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher); his trainer, Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro) whomever. It positively refuses to sit still, and that is both the best and the worst part of Hands of Stone.
Written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz, Hands of Stone is as kinetic as its hero but as conservative as his story. There is a traditional three-act structure — rise, fall, rebound — with each act punctuated by both a boxing match and external political discourse. Durán either wins or loses depending on the mental game that he is fighting with himself and the blending of the internal and the external should work marvelously, but ultimately falls flat. Maybe because Arcel narrates so much of Durán’s story, a device that feels more like a cover-up than illumination.
Yet, there is enough to like in Hands of Steel to keep it from being a hollow exercise in style and national pride; namely, the cinematography. Its ostentatiousness can get in the way of simpler scenes, but Miguel Ioann Littin Menz’s use of wide-angle lens and anamorphic widescreen framing gives Hands of Steel a visual quality not often seen in these types of movies. The same could be said of the editing’s pace from Ethan Maniquis, which is fleet-footed and as fast as Sugar Ray Leonard’s footwork. The editing’s looseness allows the story to jump back and forth in time with the greatest of ease, bringing together overlapping events in inventive ways: a training montage and a fight blend seamlessly into one, with Durán ducking under his trainer’s feint, to come up [CUT] into a fight and punch his opponent before ducking back under [CUT] his trainer’s other feint. It’s a fun trick that adds energy into an otherwise standard-issue story.