The restoration of a tarnished icon
The biopic Hands of Stone offers an insightful vindication of Panamanian boxer Roberto Durán
Hands of Stone
Directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz
Starring Robert De Niro, Edgar Ramirez, Ana de Armas
Hands of Stone is writer and director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s quixotic project of bringing the life of Roberto Durán to the big screen. Unless you are over fifty years old, a scholar of boxing history, or a Panamanian like me, chances are you won’t know who Roberto Durán is, and you may assume that this movie is not for you. Actually, if you do know who Durán is, unless you are a Panamanian, chances are that what you know about the man will be mostly about an infamous decision he took 36 years ago, one that haunts him to this day and has come to define his career as seen by foreign eyes. But it would be a mistake to assume that you know the real story of Roberto Durán, or to dismiss this movie as something that would not interest you. Because Durán’s life is a deeply human story of grit in the face of adversity, of courage and betrayal, and — above all — it is a story of redemption.
So, who is the guy? Roberto Durán, a national hero in my native Panama, is widely regarded as one of the greatest boxers ever. When he and American boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard fought for the first time on June 20, 1980, in Montreal, Durán had an astounding record: a single loss in seventy fights, most of them won by knock-out. Leonard, an Olympic gold medalist, was undefeated and considered the favorite to win the fight. Their clash was a brutal affair, which Leonard described (using Ali’s phrase) as coming closer to death than he ever had before. Leonard fought valiantly to the bitter end, but Durán proved superior and won fairly by decision of the judges. A rematch was scheduled for November 25, 1980, in New Orleans. Near the end of the eighth round of this second fight, Roberto Durán — the most macho of all fighters, the man with the hands of stone — quit, cold turkey, out of the blue. The boxing world was in shock. Quitting during a fight is a cardinal sin against the spirit of boxing. That this sin was committed by Roberto Durán, one of the fiercest, most brutal boxers ever, during one of the most important fights of his career, made it even harder to believe.
And it is precisely on this account that Jakubowicz’s Hands of Stone should be seen as a great success: it manages to explain the inexplicable and to restore the luster to a temporarily tarnished icon. Through an accurate depiction of Durán and his personal history in Panama, the film renders the man transparent to foreign eyes, and dissipates the seeming mystery behind Durán’s fatidic decision.
Even though it features a couple of big names in the cast, the film has the feeling of an indie production, albeit a very good one. Many of the scenes were shot in real locations where Roberto Durán grew up, including the poor neighborhood of El Chorrillo. Dramatic historical scenes were recreated, in a largely factual manner, against the backdrop of real places. For example, the Administration Building of the Panama Canal Administration was used in a recreation of the tragic events of January 9, 1964, when Panamanian students and American citizens stationed in the Canal Zone clashed over the right to fly the Panamanian flag in designated places. Some inaccurate details will catch the eye of more knowledgeable viewers. For example, during some scenes shot in the Panama Canal locks of Miraflores, the recent expansion work can be seen in the background, decades before it started. In a panoramic view in another scene, the foundations of the Bridge of the Americas are shown as they look today, not as they did decades ago (even though the bridge itself is CGI’d to look as it did during Durán’s childhood).
Robert De Niro, the biggest name in the cast, plays the legendary trainer Ray Arcel, who led Durán to the world championship, and serves as a backbone to the narrative of the movie. Rising star Edgar Ramírez (Carlos, The Liberator) plays the man himself, Roberto Durán. The role required from Ramírez intense training in boxing and language. His rendering of Panamanian speech patterns is right on the money, as is his channeling of Duran’s inner animal, curse words and all. The breathtaking Ana de Armas, a relatively unknown actress of Cuban origin who is currently filming Blade Runner 2, plays Durán’s wife, Felicidad Iglesias, and also comes across as a very convincing Panamanian girl. Salsa music legend Ruben Blades (who also contributed to the film’s soundtrack) plays Carlos Eleta, Durán’s manager, enabler and — later — his unwilling Judas. A very buffed Usher Raymond brings to life the suave yet ferocious Sugar Ray Leonard. Usher was trained by Leonard himself for the role. And Óscar Jaenada, who was magnificent in Cantinflas, plays here another eccentric character to perfection: Chaflan, Durán’s childhood mentor.
I was pleased with the respectful treatment that Hands of Stone gives to historical fact concerning not only Durán’s life but also the history of his country, my country. It shows Durán as he was: not a thinker, not a gentleman, but a merciless fighter. Very sensitive topics are dealt with in an accurate manner. However, what pleased me even more was to see a film that finally has the courage to show the complex reason behind Durán’s sudden decision to quit: it is a very deep and personal reason, not easily brought to the surface. Hands of Stone explores the astonishing outcome of Durán vs. Leonard II, without relying (like ESPN’s documentary No Más did, shamelessly) on the mumbling words — overflowing with excuses — of an older, ashamed Durán trying to explain himself. Instead, it looks at the facts. It dissects the life of a young Durán in the streets of El Chorrillo, at a time when his country felt oppressed (with good reason) by the unfair treatment it had received from the United States regarding the Canal. It shows how Durán rose to prominence as a ferocious fighter, his personal shame and pride, and his sense of self. It unveils the private interests of those surrounding him and managing his career, and the chain of events that led to his rushed and ill-conceived rematch against Leonard. It reveals the man’s inner struggles against the background of his circumstances. By the end of the film, the true reason for the infamous No Más episode has become perfectly intelligible in the larger narrative of Durán’s brilliant career.