Roberto Durán, ‘Hands Of Stone,’ And Why You Never Turn A Heel Into A Babyface

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.

Then, in the midst of this story about Durán and his deprived childhood, Hands of Stone inserts the strange, star-crossed romance of Durán and his now wife, Felicidad (Ana De Armas, playing the unrealistically hot, not-particularly-charismatic love interest for the second time in as many weeks). Felicidad is a blonde, uniformed schoolgirl Durán keeps following home from school, at one point pushing her up against a wall in an alley to propose marriage. She resists at first, but eventually realizes he’s some kind of big deal boxer and they start dating. But — she’s a rich schoolgirl and he’s a poor ghetto kid who can barely read! Oh the drama! At one point she says dramatically, “We come from different worlds.” As if she’s some kind of metatextual psychic capable of reading the treatment notes for her own story.

They finally do the sex in a scene worthy of a Red Shoe Diaries vignette, and the entire storyline sort of feels like an excuse to get De Armas’s clothes off. Again, why are you telling us this? At one point there’s a bizarre cross-cutting sequence between Durán training with Arcel and Durán frolicking with Felicidad that seems to equate boxing with courtship. Is this about boxing as some kind of metaphor for sexuality? I mean, weird, but if so, make that movie, and drop the mango stuff. Instead it just feels like one of Hands of Stone‘s many sub-narratives, scrubbed clean of the particulars and polished until it becomes a meaningless platitude. He was a tough kid from the wrong side of the tracks…

In becoming a Movie with a capital M, Hands of Stone loses most of what was interesting about its own subject. Rather than showing us a different side of the heel — maybe exploring the roots of his coarse machismo — it mostly tries to turn Durán into the babyface. Which is dumb: No one roots for the Raiders because they think the Raiders are the good guys. They root for them because they like bad guys. Because they want to see some cocky, prettyboy babyface get taken down a peg. Hands of Stone takes the boxer who, as described in No Más, “is said to have knocked out a woman† and a horse††, each with one punch,” and turns him into a generic Behind The Music episode about the corrupting power of fame (with neither the horse scene nor the woman).

After he quit in the middle of the second Sugar Ray Leonard fight, held just three months after the first, Durán went from the country’s biggest hero to a guy who was getting rocks thrown at him. How crazy a story is that? There’s a lot to explore there about the way boxers risk their health to put on a good show, and the way audiences get so wrapped up in the hype that they actually feel a sense of ownership. That just because Durán put it all on the line to inspire his whole country once, he somehow owed it to them to do it again†††. Hands of Stone mostly leaves this on the table. Oh, but we do get a scene where Roberto and Felicidad discuss the assassination of General Torrijos! And another where Felicidad (wearing a sexy thong) won’t have sex with Roberto because of an argument over Jimmy Carter signing the canal treaty! This isn’t a story, it’s a set of facts.

As dramatic as boxing can be in real life, boxing films have always struggled with how to shoot it. The sport is so technical and audiences have seen so much of it that it’s almost impossible to depict realistically using two actors who aren’t really hitting each other. Why try? Real footage of all these famous fights exists, and it’s exciting and dramatic as is. Why not just use it? Projects like American Splendor and Narcos have proved that modern audiences can handle a mix of dramatic recreation and archival footage without getting confused, and boxing movies seem like the perfect place for this approach. But Hands of Stone brings as little new to the table technically as it does narratively, so instead we get choppy editing and a weird neck cracking sound effect every time the boxers clinch. What is that even supposed to be?

Durán’s story is too much for Hands of Stone narratively, and his fights are too much for it technically. By the time the credits rolled — to the tune of a horrendous Usher song, no less — I had long since said “no más.” Just watch this video and imagine the taste level of any director or set of producers who allowed it in their movie.

ªFrom The Nevada State Journal, 1975:

‘Duran Not Too Proud Of Second Knockout’

[…]As soon as Roberto Duran had knocked out Pepe El Toro, Elanora Baca rushed into the ring as Roberto was raising his arms in victory walking around the ring.

She screamed, at Roberto – ‘I hate you, I hate you. You are the worst person to ever visit Nicaragua’.

Roberto then turned away, and started to walk back to his corner, in an attempt to leave the ring.

She then grabbed Roberto by the neck, and he turned and dropped a right hand on her head, flooring her and knocking her out.

Roberto and his handlers were rushed down the ring steps and down the aisle and out of the arena and to their dressing room, where approximately 200 Nicaraguans followed and charged, and tied to break down the door of the dressing room to get at Roberto.

††As Durán explained the horse story:

”My mother’s town, Guarare, every year they have a feast,” he recalled. ”I went there with $150, a lot of money for me then. My whole family was drinking whisky and now I was down to about $30. Then this guy said, ‘I’ll bet you a bottle of whisky and $50 you can’t knock out that horse over there.’

”I looked at the horse and I thought, ‘The horse has no jaw; where am I going to hit him?’ But my uncle, Socrates Garcia, told me: ‘Hit him behind the ear. If you hit him there, he will go down.’ I said, ‘Somebody hold the money,’ then I walked over and hit the horse behind the ear and the horse went down.”

”I tore a hole in my hand, nothing broken, but it was bleeding,” he said, holding out his right hand and pointing to the knuckle area.

†††Durán briefly retired, before coming back and winning a title two weight classes up, and continued boxing until he was 50 damned years old.

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.