A man, a plan, a canal — Panama! The classic palindrome also doubles as tidy descriptor for Hands of Stone, a shoddy biopic about Roberto Durán, a legendary Panamanian boxer whose identity, according to the film, is tied closely to the fate of the Panama Canal. In the thumbnail sketch that passes for portraiture, the film offers the canal as the emotional center of both his hardscrabble youth, when he fumed over American military oppressors, and of his boxing prime in the late '70s and early '80s, when the treaty to cede the canal to Panama in 1999 was a contentious political issue. It's the rare sports movie where the Torrijos-Carter Treaties are a motivating factor.
Then again, Durán himself is something of an enigma. Though considered one of the greatest boxers of all time, Durán is known chiefly for his infamous "No Más" fight against Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980, when he abruptly threw up his hands at the end of the eighth round and quit the bout, losing his WBC Welterweight Champion belt in the process. Hands of Stone digs into the context for this startling moment — and honors Durán's claim that he never actually said the words "no más" to the referee — but it's too diffuse a biography to understand how a boxer could have all that fire in his belly doused so quickly. Mid-fight flashbacks to Panama Canal protests don't cut it.
Opening with just enough information about Durán's upbringing to cast him as a poor, illiterate street fighter with a natural feel for the ring, Hands of Stone focuses on his relationship with Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro), a legendary trainer who comes out of retirement to coach Durán (Édgar Ramírez). As Durán deals with the dramatic changes of newfound wealth and living in a country he grew up despising, Arcel works on gaining his trust and harnessing his raw skill into effective strategy. Their efforts pay off in the "Brawl in Montreal," where Durán squares off against Leonard (Usher) in a fight that limits Leonard's superior quickness and plays heavily to Durán's strengths for close combat.
The rematch, slated merely five months later, finds Durán having to shed 40 pounds and get back into shape for a better-prepared Leonard, leading to the career-bruising "No Más" debacle. Director Jonathan Jakubowicz (Secuestro Express) stages the time in between as a mini-Boogie Nights of reckless indulgence and womanizing, with his only real sparring reserved for his money-grubbing manager (Rubén Blades) and his relentlessly put-upon wife (Ana de Armas). This sets the stage for a disastrous fight, as well as Durán's slow crawl toward personal and professional redemption.
Hands of Stone falls into every Great Man biopic pitfall imaginable: It covers too much territory, strings together a highlight reel of big public moments, and crudely reduces a complex figure to a few psychological bullet points. Yet its biggest problem is a fatal lack of focus. Durán needs all the attention the film can give him, yet Jakubowicz trails off into an entire subplot about Arcel's fraught relationship with a New York mobster (John Turturro) who forced him into retirement decades earlier. He also cuts away to scenes of Leonard prepping for the second fight and making love to his wife, all just for the eureka moment when Leonard comes upon a strategy to win the rematch.
Stranded in this poorly organized hash is a truly brilliant performance by Ramírez, who plays Durán as a determined brawler with an abiding sense of honor and national pride and a sly good humor that surfaces on occasion. Ramírez's scenes with De Niro naturally recalls the latter's Oscar-winning turn as Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, the most revered of boxing biopics, but the unflattering comparison between Raging Bull and Hands of Stone has nothing to do with Ramírez, who's simply missing a vehicle worthy of his talents. It wouldn't be the first time Durán has been mismanaged.