Friday, August 26, 2016

Hands of Stone: Packs a punch

Hands of Stone (2016) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity, nudity, sexual content and strong sports violence

By Derrick Bang

Some sports champions, talent notwithstanding, make themselves very difficult to admire.

Ryan Lochte immediately comes to mind. And Dennis Rodman. And, sadly, more than a few others.

Although Roberto Durán (Edgar Ramírez, right) would rather charge into the ring and
bludgeon his opponent into submission, veteran trainer Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro)
cautions patience, and emphasizes the need for strategy.
Writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s Hands of Stone profiles another such individual: Roberto Durán, widely acknowledged as one of the world’s all-time greatest boxers. As Jakubowicz’s script suggests, Durán’s skills in the ring couldn’t entirely offset an aggressive, unpleasantly confrontational personality that resulted from a chip on his shoulder the size of Pennsylvania.

Certainly he had cause, growing up in Panama in the 1950s and early ’60s, at a time when U.S./Panamanian tensions over ownership of the Canal Zone resulted in rioting, military intervention and nasty international squabbling. Abandoned by his father — an American marine who had an affair with a local girl — and essentially raised on the streets, Durán couldn’t help hating the Americans whom he perceived as thuggish invaders.

All of which makes his eventual alliance with legendary American trainer Ray Arcel even more fascinating.

Jakubowicz’s film is an engaging sports drama anchored by two strong starring performances. The narrative is fairly predictable — insofar as anything about Durán was predictable — and Jakubowicz’s handling is solid, if unremarkable. The fight choreography, however, is stunning. Paula Fairfield’s sound design is particularly effective; rarely have cinematic punches been staged so persuasively, or sounded so brutal.

On a much lighter note, we can’t help smiling over the serendipitous casting. Robert De Niro has come full circle: After winning an Academy Award for his portrayal of boxer Jake La Motta, in 1981’s Raging Bull, he’ll very likely garner an Oscar nod for this performance as Arcel.

Jakubowicz cleverly sets up a bit of parallel structure between Durán (Edgar Ramírez) and Arcel, since both men had to overcome dangerous challenges. Durán’s mere survival during childhood was a major accomplishment, along with the luck that propelled him into a talented neighborhood trainer’s hands.

By 1953, Arcel was a well-respected promoter/trainer who had nurtured 16 champions during the preceding two decades. But his plans to bring boxing into American living rooms via a nationwide broadcast network greatly angered the Mafia kingpins who ruled the sport in New York; one evening, while Arcel was standing outside a hotel, he was bashed in the head by a thug who had concealed a lead pipe in a rolled-up newspaper.

Arcel survived, but the warning was unmistakable; he retired from the sport and stayed away from boxing for two decades. Until, in 1972, he got a call from Panamanian boxing manager Carlos Eleta (played here by Rubén Blades). Eleta had a kid with incredible talent but no discipline: a powerhouse slugger who relied on brute force and couldn’t be bothered with strategy. Eleta knew that wouldn’t fly, in the long run; would Arcel consider coming out of retirement?

Jakubowicz’s script suggests that this arrangement is tolerated by Mafia boss Frankie Carbo (John Turturro, quietly reptilian) because Arcel agrees to take the job at no salary, thus fulfilling his long-ago promise to “never again make money from boxing.” That seems unlikely, but it’s a cheeky plot point, and easily tolerated.

Unfortunately, Durán hates Americans — all Americans — and his initial meeting with Arcel goes nowhere, much to Eleta’s chagrin. It’s a droll confrontation, the boxer blowing Arcel off while celebrating his latest victory by indulging in a stack of ice cream cups containing “all 31” Baskin Robbins flavors. Arcel bids farewell and returns to New York.

Maddeningly, Jakubowicz doesn’t give us anything approaching a reasonable reconciliation scene, or Durán’s acceptance of an uneasy truce; when next we see these two men, they’re already working together, if reluctantly on Durán’s part. Given that the dynamic between these two men is such an integral part of their collective story, it’s a frustrating oversight.

Particularly because, from this point forward, the relationship is fascinating. De Niro is captivating as he wheedles, cajoles, sweet-talks and threatens his way into Durán’s head, and it’s refreshing to see the seasoned actor once again sink his teeth into a serious dramatic role, after a string of fitfully successful comedy junk such as Grudge Match, Last Vegas and The Big Wedding.

De Niro is terrific here, his approach to Arcel a charismatic blend of wily subtlety and occasional impatience, the trainer frequently having to restrain his clear desire — we see it in the actor’s eyes — to smack his rude protégé upside the head. De Niro also shares several strong scenes with Ellen Barkin, well cast as Arcel’s sympathetic but deeply concerned wife, Stephanie, who (quite reasonably) worries about the consequences of her husband’s return to the career that nearly got him killed.

Ramírez, in turn, is completely believable as Durán: haughty, insulting, hot-tempered and foolishly stubborn. He actually feels dangerous, as if the merest flicker of expression could turn him into a rage machine (which does, indeed, happen more than once). At the same time, Ramírez displays the imposing, intimidating physicality that one expects from a professional boxer, particularly when taking — or delivering — punishment during the film’s many ring bouts.

Although this boxer/trainer dynamic is the story’s centerpiece, Jakubowicz also devotes considerable time to the relationship between Durán and his wife, Felicidad (Ana de Armas), starting from the point at which the trainee boxer falls head over heels for a well-to-do schoolgirl from a better part of town. “We’re from two worlds,” she says, regretfully, early on ... but that doesn’t stop him.

The resulting courtship is quite sweet, de Armas gradually transitioning from shy and slightly amused, to fiercely devoted, and then — as the story progresses — chagrined and distraught. Thanks to make-up and costume design, both Ramírez and de Armas age convincingly, during the course of roughly two decades.

Grammy Award-winning R&B star Usher Raymond IV delivers an effective performance as sports icon Sugar Ray Leonard, whose career intersects Durán’s at several key points. The arc of their relationship is fascinating, particularly in terms of how it eventually plays out.

David Arosemena is convincingly street-tough as the young Roberto, and Óscar Jaenada is a hoot as the irrepressible Chaflan, a sort of Dickensian Fagin to Roberto and the other street urchins in the El Chorrillo slums.

Drena De Niro is less successful as Adele, a long-estranged daughter who re-enters Arcel’s life as these events proceed. The actress is not to blame; the character remains under-developed and superfluous, and we can’t help wondering why she’s even present in the film.

Although granted a publicity campaign that makes it look like a Hollywood effort, Jakubowicz’s film actually is the biggest film ever produced in Panama: a Latino production with the widest U.S. release in history. As such, the prevalence of subtitled dialog may be unexpected (and, hopefully, won’t be a problem for mainstream American viewers who generally avoid such things).

This is a thoroughly engaging saga, and — given the active participation of Durán and his family — we should be impressed by the candor with which the boxer is presented, often in a highly unflattering light. That certainly makes the story more interesting.

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