Saturday, 17 September 2016

THE CONTENDER: Gritty and action-heavy, Hands of Stone packs a strong punch

FIGHT CLUB: Ramirez turns up the heat as heavyweight champ and Panamanian hero Roberto Duran.

Ali, The Hurricane, Creed, Rocky, Raging Bull. Boxing films are almost always centred on the most intriguing sportsmen of their generation – real or fictional. And who delivered more intrigue, spectacle, shock and awe than Roberto ‘Manos de Piedra’ Duran, the Panamanian pugilist who was known as much for his bravado and temper as for his relentless prowess inside the ring?

Duran’s fascinating journey from street urchin to globally celebrated heavyweight champ gets a robust cinematic telling in Hands of Stone, a stirringly told and ferociously acted biopic that has no shortage of drama, intermittent humour and the kind of edge-of-your-seat action synonymous with the tough bloodsport.

Edgar Ramirez (Ché) throws himself into the lead, nailing Duran’s mix of ruthlessness and recklessness with aplomb – portraying a man we both root for and occasionally pity. He works hard, he loves his wife and multiple kids (Ana de Armas plays longsuffering wife Felicidad), but his unpredictability and loose-cannon moments are serious cause for concern.

No one knew this better than Harlem’s Ray Arcel (Robert DeNiro, brilliant), the legendary trainer who takes Duran under his wing and transforms his potential into ferocious fighting power. (“A new era for boxing begins with Roberto Duran,” he declares.) But Arcel is often on the receiving end of Duran’s vile temper, and some of their verbal clashes are simply cringe-worthy.

In spite of his flaws, Duran’s meteoric rise from nothing to something ignites his native Panama, with the masses rallying behind him, glued to their TV screens whenever he has an encounter – most notably those two memorable bouts in 1980 with Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond rocking a ’fro, a beefy bod and fancy footwork), who ends up teaching Duran a thing or two about the psychology of competition.

Against the backdrop of contentious US-Panama relations (the Panama Canal and divisive politics frequently wind their way into the plot), the Jonathan Jakubowicz-directed film is both full-throttle entertainment and history lesson, boasting an accomplished supporting cast that includes Ellen Barkin (as Arcel’s devoted wife), Jurnee Smollett (as Leonard’s supportive girlfriend) and John Turturro as a New York mobster who puts the pressure on Arcel.

Overall, Hands of Stone is no tour-de-force, but it’s a sold addition to the ever-growing canon of boxing biopics – spotlighting a complex and compelling figure whose story is a testament to pride and honour, growing up and rising to the occasion. Tyrone’s Verdict: B

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