You can measure the progress of immigrants in American society by the names of boxing champions. The Irish ruled at the start of the 20th century: Sullivan, Corbett, Ryan, Jeffries. Then came the Jews: Rosenbloom, Leonard, Baer. They were followed by the Italians (Marciano, Graziano) and African-Americans (Joe Louis and everyone after him).
By the 1970s, many Latinos took this path to fame, wealth and prestige in their homelands. One of the first – perhaps the greatest, most unruly, determined and arrogant – was Roberto Durán, who gets his due in “Hands of Stone,” which was his nickname.
The best fighters are quick, smart, efficient and never showy in the ring, whatever they say or do outside it. That’s true of this assured English-language debut by writer-director Jonathan Jacubowicz. (Well, mostly English-language. Durán and his fellow Panamanians use Spanish. Jacubowicz, who grew up in Venezuela, speaks both.)
We get a lot of the usual boxing-movie tropes: The slum boy stealing food, the wealthy promoter who puts his welfare ahead of his fighter’s, the wise old trainer who calms the raging boxer, poor kids back home who watch his title fights on a battered TV.
But these apply, and Jacubowicz serves them with speed and precision. In less than two hours, you feel you know Durán in all his pride, cunning, self-indulgence and ring savagery.
There’s a double climax: His stunning win over Olympic champ Sugar Ray Leonard and humiliating defeat by Leonard five months later – the famous “no mas” fight, where the tired, rubber-legged Durán refused to continue. (He later swore he never said “No more,” and the film accepts his version.) Then the story lifts him up for one great triumph and leaves him before the long years of decline: He fought until he was 50 (!) but lost five of his last 12 bouts.
Edgar Ramírez, who’s also Venezuelan, is too old and heavy to be the lightweight champ in his early years. Yet his performance has gravity and depth, and he fully conveys Durán’s need for attention and success. Cuban actress Ana de Armas gives back intense energy as Felicidad, to whom Durán’s still married more than 40 years later.
Usher Raymond plays a shrewd Sugar Ray Leonard, and Rubén Blades’ natural likeability makes the promoter’s coldheartedness more startling. De Niro, who can still be great when a director pushes him, is a calm and forceful asset as trainer Ray Arcel, and Jacubowicz takes time to delve into his back story, too.
De Niro’s presence reminds us of his work in “Raging Bull,” another biopic about a stubborn, self-defeating slugger who had to learn that brute force isn’t enough in the ring or in life. That’s an old story, but Jacubowicz proves you can tell it over and over and still make us care.
‘Hands of Stone’
☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2
Cast: Edgar Ramírez, Robert De Niro, Ana de Armas, Rubén Blades, Usher Raymond IV.
Writer-director: Jonathan Jacubowicz.
Length: 108 minutes.
Rating: R (language throughout and some sexuality/nudity).