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Movie review: Robert De Niro, Edgar Ramirez do OK with bantamweight script

Robert De Niro, left, and Edgar Ramirez in a scene from, “Hands of Stone.” (Rico Torres / AP)
Robert De Niro, left, and Edgar Ramirez in a scene from, “Hands of Stone.” (Rico Torres / AP)
By Michael Phillips Chicago Tribune

With “Hands of Stone,” Robert De Niro officially enters his Burgess-Meredith-in-“Rocky” phase, bringing the ringside grizzle and rumpled gravitas by the pound. In writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s peppy, none-too-probing biopic of Panamanian champion Roberto Duran, played by Edgar Ramirez, the “Raging Bull” Oscar winner (and let’s not forget “Grudge Match”) takes the role of legendary trainer Ray Arcel. He’s the man behind the man. And good or bad, there’s always a man behind the man in boxing.

Arcel guided the hands of stone of Duran to world titles and toward the champ’s best, most effective boxing instincts. De Niro and top-billed Ramirez do well with a bantamweight script. It’s a strange picture structurally. Duran has to fight for a fair share of his own life story. We see Arcel’s dealings with the mob (John Turturro dines out on a couple of scenes as promoter and underworld killer Frankie Carbo); his estranged and then reunited daughter (Drena De Niro, Robert’s daughter); and his loyal, understanding wife (Ellen Barkin, waiting for worthy scenes that never arrive).

These and other out-of-ring activities share the picture with Duran’s welterweight title matches against Sugar Ray Leonard, portrayed by Usher Raymond with a genial approximation of Leonard’s exuberant footwork and merrily taunting style.

“Hands of Stone” starts in 1971, at Madison Square Garden, proceeding backward to young Duran’s childhood in poverty in Panama. The clash between the Panamanians and U.S. troops and residents shapes Duran’s anti-American sentiment at an early age. By the time Arcel gets ahold of this brilliant but reckless boxing phenom, he’s full of wild impulses and ruled by a stubborn sense of his own greatness.

Jakubowicz slams everything forward in “Hands of Stone” at a gotta-get-it-all-in pace, sometimes entertainingly, sometimes in a frustrating blur. The people on the screen have what it takes to sell us a line of used goods. Duran’s whirling courtship of Felicidad Iglesias (Ana de Armas, currently in “War Dogs,” more memorably deployed here) leads to marriage, several children, a betrayal or two and a bedrock of stability underneath Duran. Ramirez, a rough-hewn charmer, too often is undercut by the film’s harried technique; just when he’s getting going in a scene, any kind of scene, boom, abrupt cut, next vignette. If director Jakubowicz were a boxer, he could use a guy like Arcel to remind him: Films work better with an overall visual strategy.

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