‘Hands of Stone’
Director: Jonathan Jakubowicz
Stars:
Edgar Ramirez, Robert De Niro
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

“Hands of Stone” isn’t a hagiography; it’s not even a movie that straightens a record. It’s closer to a yes-man who tells their boss their speech was great, ignoring the part where his pants fell down. The subject is Roberto Duran, one of the greatest boxers who’s never scored a movie. You think he’d deserve one: He pulled himself up from the bootstraps of Panama’s streets to hold world titles in four different weight classes. He had a punch so hard he earned the eponymous nickname. But here’s the rub: In the seventh round of a highly-publicized rematch with Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980, he abruptly called it off, taking his toys and leaving with the whole world watching.

There are many ways to tackle this. A fascinating film could be made that explored the difficulties of being a star. Failing that, it could paint Duran as a complex figure who let fame go to his head. “Hands of Stone” is a little bit that movie. But it also goes so far out of its way to portray him as a victim, to spin his rep-shattering act as sort of defensible — you know, if you look at it this way — that you can’t help smelling a rat. You can picture the real Duran just off-screen, smiling and nodding his head, thrilled that a movie finally “got” him. At least he’s happy.

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The rest of us get a sticky piece of cornball that keeps pulling its punches. Edgar Ramirez is at least predictably fiery as Duran, who punches his way out of poverty — with a lot of help from a legendary trainer Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro), who uses his clout to bust him up to the big leagues. Thankfully the movie never becomes entirely about this white savior, trying to find a split between American and non-American audiences. (Ramirez even spends most of the movie speaking Spanish.)

That may be unusual for a Hollywood biopic, which tend to make stories about non-whites entirely from a white perspective. But the rest is cookie-cutter. It’s a rise-and-fall-and-rise-again romp, whose middle section is devoted to Duran gorging like Caligula on his wealth. It dwells so much on his Bacchanal period that it becomes clear this the movie is pulling a bait-and-switch: You’re supposed to think he’s complicated because he got too into drinks and drugs and cheated on his wife and turned on friends. You’re supposed to ignore that the film doesn’t think his infamous act in the fight with Leonard (Usher Raymond, good) is complicated. In fact, it spends a lot of time pinning all the blame on his manager, who rushed him back into battle, concerned only about money.

“Hands of Stone” may look like a standard-issue inspirational sports saga, if one with matches that are an incoherent flurry of flying boxing gloves and sweating. But look closely and you can see it’s akin to a child smashing a triangle into a square-shaped hole, struggling mightily to make a complicated and troubled figure look like just another hero. It's cinema as damage control.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge