Robert De Niro — the Raging Bull himself, now aged from boxer to trainer — is introduced in Hands of Stone bathed in Madison Square Garden’s overhead spotlights, more the image of a reigning champ than the promising fighter whose American debut his character, Ray Arcel, has come to see. It’s impossible to follow the actual trajectory of the choppily edited fight, so it’s only clear how impressive Roberto Durán (Edgar Ramírez) is supposed to be from the look on De Niro’s face. For every punch thrown, there’s a reaction shot: a quizzical eyebrow raise, a head cocked left or right. It’s like watching De Niro get his eyes checked; you can practically see the optometrist behind the camera, asking him to follow a finger. This sequence is immediately followed by a post-fight locker-room scene in which Durán chows down on all 31 flavors of Baskin-Robbins, a moment of product placement that's too blatant and too early, setting the amateur-hour tone for this biopic of the Panamanian fighter.
The real Durán’s reputation is paradoxical: Nearly every reference source deems him one of history’s greatest boxers, but the single fight he’s most associated with is his infamous 1980 rematch against Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond), which Durán stopped in the eighth round after clearly getting the worst of it. He claims he never actually said “No más” (the title of the inevitable 30 for 30 doc on the subject), but any film about him must eventually reckon with this blot on his record. Some claim Durán had stomach pain after eating too much before the fight; others blame a sore shoulder. Writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz advances a different theory: Durán was too overwhelmed by flashbacks to struggle on.
Those flashbacks cut to scenes from Hands of Stone’s first half, which sketches adolescent Durán’s impoverished upbringing before introducing Ramírez as the grown, swaggering up-and-comer. When paired with Arcel, Durán almost immediately abandons his anti-American sentiments (forged by a childhood spent in the shadow of abusive U.S. soldiers) and begins a montage rise to success. Arcel gets his own hurried origin story as well: Once a promising trainer, he stopped in 1953 after an attack by mob-connected elements (represented solely by occasional appearances from John Turturro as a red-sauce caricature of a mobster). His wife worries that working with Durán will incur their wrath, but Arcel doesn’t fret: “That thing with the wise guys? That was 17 years ago!” Wiseguys was the title of the Nicholas Pileggi book that became Goodfellas, and intentionally or not the reference is another way the second-billed De Niro hangs heavily over this film.
Ditto the boxing scenes: Raging Bull is the obvious (and predictably unflattering by comparison) reference point. A Steadicam busily circles the ring, catching plausible jabs from Ramírez and the equally muster-passing bouncing of Usher, who translates his dance training into an acceptable pantomime of the sport. But the bouts are all muddles lacking sustained choreography or a sense of trajectory, with crowd reaction shots and sports announcer voice-over carrying the slack.
Hands of Stone isn’t any smoother in its non-athletic downtime, which includes several regrettable opportunities for “comic” bonding between Arcel and Durán that show De Niro at his late-period-improv worst. The prevailing dialogue mode is a complete assortment of clichés, from purely expository opening data points (“This is his 22nd knockout in 25 fights!”) to the rote obstacles impeding Durán’s courtship of his upper-class wife, Juanita (Jurnee Smollett-Bell): “We come from different worlds,” she says sadly, but that attitude doesn’t last long.
Note that Durán’s courtship gambits cross what we now consider norms of consent and nonharassment, as he repeatedly stalks her down the street and even pulls her to a wall when she wants to get away. Juanita subsequently fulfills the usual onscreen wife functions of nagging, crying and (less standard of late) disrobing for a plainly gratuitous sex scene; Leonard and his spouse get one, too.
When the movie tears itself away from De Niro, it rushes through a fairly standard, Behind the Music–esque rise-fall-rise narrative: Ramírez roars, cries and breaks down in drunken rages and binge-eating fits before his inevitable comeback fight, when he trains with someone other than Arcel. Here, once and for all, he must overcome his anti-Americanism. “The American you’re talking to?” Arcel scolds his former protégé. “He gave you the best years of his life.” And so, at the climax of a film about one of Panama’s most famous citizens — one assailed during his lowest moment by visions of brutal American soldiers and an impoverished childhood — a very odd, and presumably inadvertent suggestion comes through: In order to win, Durán had to learn to love the Yanqui.