Muhammad Ali, Jake LaMotta, Jack Johnson–all great boxing champions who have had major motion pictures made about their storied careers. But I’m hard-pressed to come up with one about a renowned Latino fight king. I’m pretty certain there hasn’t been one. Until now. “Hands of Stone” is the often thrilling story of the legendary Roberto Duran, who is perhaps the finest lightweight boxing champion ever. “Manos de Piedra” also famously won, and then infamously lost, in a pair of pulse-pounding welterweight title bouts against Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980. After that, Duran managed to resurrect his astonishing career by grabbing two different versions of the middleweight crown. Ultimately, Duran fought competitively well into his forties, before retiring at the age of fifty in 2001. Hey, I’m a boxing enthusiast (also doing some amateur fighting myself, in my teens), a Duran fan, and I once met Sugar Ray Leonard. This is a project I’ve been anticipating for years now. It doesn’t disappoint.
And do you want to know what’s extra-special about this fine boxing drama? The bravery of allowing a movie about a boxer who barely spoke English, to have most of the title character’s dialogue in Spanish, with English subtitles. A very classy move. I’ll actually extend kudos to the Weinstein Company…bravo! Robert De Niro stars as Duran’s magnificent trainer Ray Arcel who guided him in his bouts against champions Ken Buchanan (ex-middleweight contender, John Duddy), and Sugar Ray Leonard (an impressive Usher, the pop star billed here as Usher Raymond). Plus, the superb Edgar Ramirez is a knockout (couldn’t help myself) as Duran–a sneering, leering, ball-of-fire, with a Charles Manson beard and mustache. The film successfully weaves in some U.S.-Panama politics to supply some dramatic oomph. Not as welcome, is the cliche mobster backstory, with John Turturro as Frankie Carbo. It’s not fatal. Also, they picked a solid endpoint: Duran’s 1983 Madison Square Garden bout against undefeated junior middleweight king, Davey Moore (Israel Isaac Duffus). That battle occurred on Roberto’s 32nd birthday.
If anything, “Hands of Stone” suffers from being a bit too brief. At 111 minutes, the filmmakers actually accomplish a lot, but Roberto’s story easily deserves the epic length treatment. But it’s much better than nothing, and I admire what writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz did manage to portray. In other key roles, Oscar Jaenada is clown/mascot Chaflan, Ellen Barkin is Stephanie Arcel, Ruben Blades is Carlos Eleta, Reg E. Cathey is Don King, and Ana de Armas is Felicidad Duran. Hopefully, this film will help erase the stigma of Duran being only known as the man who uttered “no mas”. Duran deserves better, the movie works hard to supply it, it’s an obvious labor of love, dedicated to, perhaps, the best Latino boxer to ever lace on the gloves.