Raging Bull star Robert DeNiro returns to the world of boxing films as renowned trainer Ray Arcel, who puts his retirement on hold to train up-and-coming boxer Duran (Edgar Ramirez, Joy). The chemistry between Hollywood legend and rising star was Hands of Stone’s greatest strength, providing a platform for new actors to strut their stuff and for vets to act as mentors to the newcomers. Duran’s wife Felicidad was played by Ana de Armas (most recently in War Dogs), a young Cuban actress who shows great promise. The actors in this film all complemented each other remarkably well, with DeNiro giving his best performance in a long time, and Ramirez and de Armas showing their acting chops that are sure to get them even bigger and better roles in the future. The strangest choice made by the casting director was giving the role of Sugar Ray Leonard to Usher, who I don’t think has acted a day in his life. That being said, he gave a surprisingly decent performance for someone with such little experience. Usher was able to embody Leonard’s lively spirit and competitive attitude in the ring.
For a film about such a brutal sport, Hands of Stone was, for lack of a better description, tastefully violent. Enough was shown on screen to portray the fight in a realistic way, but truly none of it was gratuitous. The camera work was creative, allowing the actors’ emotionally intense performances to be more pivotal than seeing punches actually land. This parallels nicely with Arcel’s emphasis that the emotional and psychological aspects of boxing tend to be more important than the physical. He trained Duran to prioritize strategy over technique, brains over brawn, which ultimately contributed to his success.
With the Olympics recently closed, the political ties to sports shown in Hands of Stone were timely. The Torrijos-Carter Treaties were signed in 1977, guaranteeing that Panama would take control of the Canal Zone over twenty years later in 1999. Because of the meaningless appeasement it seemed to be at the time, Duran took it upon himself to bring a symbolic victory over the United States to Panama, which mean a victory over Sugar Ray Leonard. Duran’s victory was humiliating to Leonard, and by association (symbolically, anyway) the United States. Something as relatively meaningless as a boxing match doesn’t seem like it could be so politicized, but director Jonathan Jakubowicz was successful in portraying it as Panama’s sort of Miracle on Ice.
Hands of Stone is a compelling film, even for those who don’t care much for boxing. Each performance was strong, with DeNiro and Ramirez leading the ensemble and portraying the tough but charismatic characters they were tasked with. The film was mostly character-driven, but featured intense boxing sequences that kept the pace steady and engaging. Though it is a bit early, I think Hands of Stone could easily be considered an awards season contender.