It’s generally always a pleasure to hear the voice of Robert DeNiro, but “Hands of Stone” writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz finds a way to render it ineffective. The legendary actor plays fabled Ray Arcel, yet for whatever reason, he gets tasked with telling the backstory of lightweight prizefighter Robert Duran (Edgar Ramirez). As he recounts a Panamanian youth tinted with rebellion against the United States’ neocolonialism, it raises the question … can’t Duran tell this story himself?
The film quickly jumps seven years and inexplicably turns Duran from scrappy youngster to full-blown man. At this point, one expects Arcel to assume center stage a little bit more as he elevates the boxing skills of his protege. But that moment never comes. He’s a glorified supporting character who, by virtue of being played by Robert DeNiro, has to hog a little bit of the spotlight. “Hands of Stone” should not be a two-hander, co-lead kind of film. But it is, and nearly every aspect of the film suffers from trying to much and achieving too little.
For example, “Hands of Stone” begins setting up Duran’s success in a clash of civilizations narrative. On television sets throughout the film, Jakubowicz plays out the diplomatic drama between America and Panama. Duran is positioned as an allegorical figure for his country to fight back against their perceived humiliation by the United States. But once Duran starts fighting Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond IV, as multi-platinum artist Usher would now you have call him), their rumbles in the ring becomes mere clashes of egos.
The film gets mired in far too many subplots beyond just Arcel’s presence. There’s the romantic lives of all three leading men – Duran, Arcel, Leonard – receiving way too much screen time. An estranged daughter abandoned by Arcel decades prior to the film’s events drops in for an odd scene. Yes, we get all of these things, but hardly any of what people really crave from boxing movies: rapport between trainer and fighter, genuine pulse-pounding fights, a sense that the sport actually means something more than just brute force. When it comes to what matters, “Hands of Stone” is just swinging at the air and whiffing. C- /