If Roberto Duran's name came up in a word association exercise, the response would likely be "no mas." This, of course, is the infamous line that the Panamanian boxing great supposedly uttered in quitting his 1981 rematch with Sugar Ray Leonard, only months after beating him to take the title. The Duran biopic "Hands of Stone" is here to tell us that there's actually mucho mas to the tempestuous fighter's colorful story, not only prior to his historic bouts with Leonard, but afterward as well.
Venezuelan filmmaker Jonathan Jakubowicz's portrait focuses heavily on the life-changing relationship between Duran (Edgar Ramírez, "Joy") and his veteran trainer, Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro, bookending "Raging Bull" more than "Grudge Match"). Then there's Duran's fierce sense of identity as a native son of Panama in a combustible political climate. The movie covers it all capably, containing the genre's familiar dramatic heavy hitting to the point that a few scenes could actually say more than they do. Oh, and there's the novelty of seeing Usher capture that old Sugar Ray charisma, too.
The film's early going runs down the various opponents that Duran had to fight long before getting his title shot. Fatherlessness and poverty. Surroundings made dangerous by America's control of the Panama Canal. Rebelliousness that initially makes him spurn the helping hand offered by a local impresario (Rubén Blades) and the restlessly retired Arcel, and binge on Baskin-Robbins instead. (It's 31 flavors of "no mas" foreshadowing!)
The movie's love-life snapshots are more routine. Ana de Armas ably tackles "Yo, Adrian" duty as Duran's wife, even if there's a sexy-schoolgirl vibe to their teen courtship that's unintentionally uncomfortable, not to mention an age-defying reach. The deep dish on Arcel's home life feels fresher, as he and his wife (Ellen Barkin) wrestle with perennial, unwarranted threats from organized crime (embodied by John Turturro, in an intriguing look at the sport's sometimes dark history). We also meet Arcel's troubled, long-lost daughter (played by De Niro's adoptive daughter, Drena), but it's a hurried tangent.
Still, credit Jakubowicz with keeping in mind that audiences are going to be hungry for the main event — the Duran-Leonard scenes. The physicality and detail here are convincing, down to the way the film takes care not to have Ramírez actually vocalize Duran's alleged surrender. But the highlight is Duran and Arcel's bonding in the corner between rounds. We'll take more of this revealing brand of drama anytime.
HANDS OF STONE
Written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz. Starring Edgar Ramírez, Robert De Niro, Ana de Armas, Usher Raymond. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 100 minutes. R (language throughout, some sexuality/nudity).