At one point during Hands of Stone, Sugar Ray Leonard, played by the beloved recording artist Usher, climbs atop his willing wife, having apparently decided that abstinence is no longer part of his pre-fight regimen. A wave of giggles swept through the audience as we watched Usher’s rutting buttocks clench and unclench to the tune of romantic music. It wasn’t the sex that was funny, or the music, or even Usher’s muscular tiny Smurf butt. Rather, it was the confusion. We were all thinking the same thing: “Why are we watching this?”
You know you’ve failed as a non-fiction storyteller when the audience wonders why we’re watching something. In any non-fictional or based-on-a-true-story narrative, editing is the toughest task. The material is there, it’s the storyteller’s job to guide us through it. And in order to filter out the banal and irrelevant, you have to know what the story is about. Hands of Stone, Jonathan Jakubowicz’s biopic about famed boxer Roberto Durán, doesn’t know what it wants to be, and so it isn’t much of anything.
It’s sort of about the burden of being the pride of Panama, it’s sort of about Durán’s rivalry with Sugar Ray Leonard, and it’s sort of about Durán’s relationship to his trainer Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro), all while also being the Cinemax-worthy tale of boxers having sex. That is too many things! And so it just sort of flails around, without capturing any of the inherent drama of its subject.
Which is a bummer, because Roberto Durán’s life is fertile ground for a biopic. Its most well-known facet, his rivalry with Sugar Ray Leonard, isn’t just any boxing rivalry. It’s a two-fight series so legendary that just describing it brought Mike Tyson to tears (this in No Más, the 30 For 30 documentary about it). Aside from being an unbelievable fight on a technical level, the first Durán-Leonard fight in June 1980 offered the perfect clash of personalities. The classic pro wrestling formula is Babyface vs. Heel, and Sugar Ray Leonard, hero of the 1976 Olympics, magazine cover boy, and soda spokesman, made an especially smooth-skinned babyface. The dark-eyed, macho Panamanian who grabbed his balls, publicly insulted Leonard’s wife, and, as Joe Frazier noted, sort of looked like Charles Manson, proved an excellent foil.
That’s the US-centric version, anyway. The other angle is that the dirt poor kid from a Panamanian ghetto was taking on the golden boy from the U.S., a country that had dominated Panama since its inception. Oh, and he was taking home a tenth of Sugar Ray’s purse for his troubles. If Americans wanted Sugar Ray to kick Durán’s ass, imagine how the Panamanians felt.
That’s an interesting story too, and Hands of Stone, which stars Point Break‘s Edgar Ramirez as Durán, does get at some of it. We see a scene from Durán’s childhood, evading U.S. Marines in the canal zone to steal his starving family some mangoes during a violent protest. It’s a little hamfisted, because why would U.S. Marines even care about a little kid picking mangoes? But at least it feels relevant.