Hands of Stone

Film Review |By Christian Tesfaye - special to Fortune

Films about boxing have a long history of inspiring an audience. There is something unique about the sport, which has led to it being far more successful on the big screen than many other sports. Hands of Stone, however, won't be joining the list of the great movies in this genre. Set against the Panama-US political crisis, the film tries to do too much and ends up doing very little - 5 out of 10 stars

As many would concur, being a guy is awesome. But it is also sometimes annoying, as any individual of such sex is expected to like sports. There was a time in my life where I used to watch soccer, just to be able to talk about it with friends. Whenever there is a big match between two famous football clubs, it would be the prevalent subject of male colloquy. And so, I would stay up most of the night to watch something I didn’t really care about, just not to be left out of discussions. I don’t do that now, of course, and not because I am a better person who considers himself above chitchat, but because my friends grew out of their infatuation with the sport.

And if I am an Ethiopian who isn’t fond of football – for either Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool or Chelsea – then it could successfully be argued that I don’t like any other sport. I don’t get sports in general; I find them trite, and even corny. But I respect athletes. The human body is an abstract biophysical structure that takes intense training and concentration to get it to do most of the activities great athletes find second nature. And I especially respect boxers because, unlike all other athletes, they are willing to get punched in the face without impunity.

Anything remotely connected with violence, and sex, at one point or another becomes the subject of a movie. And so we have two of the greatest sports movies ever made – Rocky and Raging Bull – and unsurprisingly, they are both about boxing – some might argue they are actually about the boxers, but I say potato ‘potahto’ (a man is what he does). Nonetheless, the difference between the two couldn’t be more clear. Raging Bull is a dark film about a distressed and angry boxer who never becomes as successful in real life as he is in the ring. Rocky is an optimistic movie about an amiable hulking Italian-American amateur boxer (Sylvester Stallone in his first famous role), who finds out that it is the journey that counts and not the destination. For years now, all boxing movies have been judged against these two utterly original and rewarding films as reference points, and Matti Cinema’s recent film, Hands of Stone, is no exception.

The film is about a Panamanian lightweight – and later middle weight – boxer, Roberto Duran. Duran grew up in Panama, with his country’s uneasy relationship with the US clouding his opinion of the country. The cause for the unease being the famous Panama Canal, which before the late 1970’s was considered a US territory on Panamanian soil. Duran grows up to be a boxer under this time of political tension, all the time harbouring resentment for America.

At about the time he plans to turn professional, he becomes acquainted to a famed American boxing trainer, Ray Arcel. Arcel is persona non grata in the boxing world because he once tried to make boxing a national sport, as opposed to a New York sport, and antagonised the wrong people. As a last bout of defiance, he decides to train Duran (albeit for free) and make the Panamanian the world champion. To do this though, the two men would have to set their not-so-petty differences aside and beat the current title holder, Sugar Ray Leonard, who has never been defeated.

Hands of Stone tries to tell too many stories. It would have been enough if the movie was only about Duran, as given the political themes the film was trying to make – but never adequately addressed – there was enough of story there. But Arcel eats away some of the screen time that could have been used to make Duran a more relatable character. The plot concerning Arcel’s daughter is off-putting and smacks of desperation on the filmmaker’s side to find a reason for Arcel’s decision to train the wayward Duran.

Almost anyone in the film is more likable than the protagonist. I guess the writers started out with the intention of distancing themselves as far away from Rocky as possible, by making the protagonist less of a saint. The plan backfired and what we have is a movie with a protagonist so irritating and disrespectful, he doesn’t deserve to win any of his matches. Especially since Duran’s opponent, Leonard, is a far more suave and agreeable person. Throughout the entire movie, Leonard is the focus of Duran’s dissatisfaction with the US – as if defeating him would mean punishing America for exploiting Panama. If it wasn’t obvious to the filmmakers, the audience is more than likely to sympathise with Leonard. Leonard is an African-American in 1980, where racism is rampant and every black man has his own personal fight for racial justice with white America. Leonard does not need all that baloney from Duran. And if conversely Duran was all along supposed to be an antihero we were never expected to like, then it doesn’t fit with the film’s overall underdog motif.

Duran is played by moderately known actor, Édgar Ramírez, to whom this role might have meant a breakthrough performance. He does a good enough job in portraying Duran, but the film fails to repay his hard work. Arcel is played by Robert De Niro, who doesn’t need a breakthrough role. He is such a distinguished actor his casting might have inspired the filmmakers to add a background story to his character. But I guess that is an acceptable sacrifice to have De Niro show up in one’s movie. Most of his great roles are in Martin Scorsese films, and this one particular appearance is a kind of throwback to his highly prized performance as Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. Thankfully, this film is nowhere near as blatant about making a comparison, or a parody, as 2013’s Grudge Match, where he and Stallone play overage boxers. Lately, De Niro seems content in choosing less offbeat parts (he even goes as far as comedy), perhaps because Scorsese prefers to work with DiCaprio these days.

Surprisingly enough, Leonard, Duran’s two-time opponent, is played by Usher. Yes, the pop musician with the high pitched voice, catchy songs (although miserably tired-out), and flashy dance moves. His performance in this film has more heart and art in it than all his songs put together. And although he doesn’t do as good a job as De Niro, it was mighty nice of him to play an inconsequential role in an inconsequential movie.

By Christian Tesfaye
special to Fortune

Published on Sep 13,2016 [ Vol 17 ,No 854]



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