Review: ‘Hands of Stone’ charts Roberto Durán’s road to ‘no más’

July 23, 2024 | (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — The Associated Press voted him the greatest lightweight of the 20th century, while Ring Magazine voted him the fifth best fighter of all time, behind Sugar Ray Robinson, Henry Armstrong, Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis.

And yet, almost tragically, Roberto Durán is widely remembered for that infamous moment at the Louisiana Superdome on Nov. 25, 1980, where he called it quits in his rematch title defense against Sugar Ray Leonard, reportedly bowing out with the phrase “No más” (no more). Did he actually utter those words? What brought him to that mental space of quitting? And how did he recover afterward?

That controversial life and career is explored in the new boxing biopic “Hands of Stone,” the bruising nickname for Durán (Edgar Ramirez), who rises from the streets of Panama to train with renowned American trainer Ray Arcel (Robert DeNiro). While the film shows numerous bouts, three fights serve as fulcrums: first beating Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher) to win the WBC welterweight title in a unanimous decision in Montreal, quitting the infamous New Orleans rematch, then rebounding to a 1983 comeback against undefeated Davey Moore on his 32nd birthday at Madison Square Garden.

For all its structural flaws, “Hands of Stone” is worth watching at the very least for its performances.

You’ll recognize Ramirez from Paul Greengrass’ “Bourne Ultimatum” (2007), Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012) and David O. Russell’s “Joy” (2015). But the role most resembles his Emmy nod as Venezuelan rebel Ilich Ramírez Sánchez in the TV miniseries “Carlos” (2010), as Ramirez paints Durán as an in-ring Panamanian freedom fighter, burned by an American father who deserted him as a young boy and a U.S. government clashing with his native land over the Panama Canal.

This breeds a chip-on-the-shoulder, angry-at-everyone attitude and a fear of abandonment that causes him to lash out at those closest to him, namely his knockout wife Felicidad Iglesias (Ana de Armas). She recalls Cathy Moriarty at the pool in “Raging Bull” (1980) as the magnetic Ramirez pursues her down the sidewalk like the suave Steven Bauer striking out in “Scarface” (1983).

The far more compelling relationship comes each time Arcel combs Durán’s hair between rounds, overcoming his pupil’s initial mistrust to earn his respect with the realization that not all Americans are out to get him. Outside the ring, DeNiro steals the show as an aging vet with nothing to lose, depicted in his interactions with wife Stephanie (Ellen Barkin) and Brooklyn mob boss Frankie Carbo (John Turturro), who destroyed his boxing career and nearly left him for dead before reaching a gentleman’s agreement to leave him alone as long as he doesn’t make another cent from boxing.

If Paul Giamatti won awards for “Cinderella Man” (2005), Morgan Freeman for “Million Dollar Baby” (2004) and Sylvester Stallone for “Creed” (2015), there’s no reason why DeNiro can’t find a nod here. The screen legend steals the movie as the wise sage with meta-cred, offering plenty of lessons to teach from his own “unlikable anti-hero” Jake LaMotta — proof that not every boxing protagonist needs to be a lovable, punch-drunk patriot like Rocky Balboa. DeNiro even quotes his “Raging Bull” wisdom to Ramirez, saying, “You’re the boss,” en route to a different “Ya never got me down, Ray.”

Just as DeNiro fought Sugar Ray Robinson, Ramirez fights Sugar Ray Leonard, portrayed not by Mark McGrath of ’90s band Sugar Ray, but by R&B star Usher Raymond. Instead of “put your dukes up,” it’s “hands up, suddenly we all got our hands up.” While few consider Usher a first-rate actor, his fancy footwork is undisputed after his step-for-step tribute to Gene Kelly. As Sugar Ray, he’s not asked to do much heavy lifting outside the ring — given a random soft-core sex scene with Jurnee Smollett-Bell (“Full House”) — but inside the squared circle, he’s a fitting float-like-a-butterfly dancer.

While the performances are winners — ranging from raw (Ramirez) to wise (DeNiro), flashy (Usher) to amusing (Reg E. Cathey as Don King and Robb Skyler as Howard Cosell), the storytelling itself is a bit suspect. There are times that Venezuelan writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz shows major signs of promise. In the Panamanian romance scenes especially, the static wide-angle composition of the lovers sneaking into a building to make love would make Fellini and Antonioni proud.

Jakubowicz also shows in-ring pizzazz, weaving rapid edits, bone-crunching sound design and sweeping wide-angle tracking shots that show lights flashing above the ring like Broadway, recalling DeNiro’s line: “If he fought Sugar Ray, he would say, that the thing ain’t the ring it’s the play.”

Unfortunately, the film tries to cover too much ground too fast. Like a stone skipping across a pond, “Stone” jams way too much “life story” into an hour and 45 minutes, from flashbacks to Durán’s childhood to the major moments of his boxing career, as fights come and go without the proper buildup. The rapid pacing feels a bit like a docudrama, resembling ESPN’s “30 for 30” doc “No Mas” more than a narrative script, while dips-to-black hide weak transitions between scenes.

Still, for all its structural ham-handedness, “Hands” mostly succeeds at providing insight into why Durán called it quits. Sports buffs will come to see him as a fighter who not only realized he was out of shape, but a human being who realized he had lost his hunger. This was a ring technician offended by Sugar Ray’s dancing as if their bout was a show, a competitor offended by greedy managers hoping he’d lose in order to set up a moneymaking third fight. This was his way out.

To this day, Durán insists he never said, “No más,” a point reinforced by the “where are they now” end credits. During the apocryphal moment, a ringside announcer is the one who utters the phrase, suggesting the old “Liberty Valance” adage: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

In such mythical moments, we’re reminded why boxing remains the greatest sports movie subgenre. So many great movies have transposed so many different life allegories on these mano-a-mano showdowns, from Best Picture-winning underdog crowd-pleasers like “Rocky” (1976) to artfully-shot masterpieces creating tragic character studies of paranoid self-destruction like “Raging Bull.”

With such a high bar, film judges will dock points on the boxing score cards, leaving “Hands of Stone” bloodied in the agony of defeat. But to me, it’s a valiant effort, a hungry movie that succeeds on the human level more than the technical, one that may be left wobbly, but is at least standing at the bell. It may not be a knockout in victory or a knockdown in defeat, but it’s a bruising, aching split decision.

2-and-half-stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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