Two things every sports fan remembers about the boxer Roberto Duran — that his nickname, “Hands of Stone” (“Manos de Piedra“) came from his ferocious, knock-out delivering fists — and “No mas,” the infamous phrase attached to a fight he was losing to Sugar Ray Leonard, a fight he quit in frustration.
But can you make a movie titled “Hands of Stone” without “No mas”? You can’t. But if it’s based on Duran’s autobiography and thus officially sanctioned, you don’t have to have him say it.
That’s a quibble with “Hands of Stone,” a swaggering and colorful boxing bio pic from the Venezuelan writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz (“Secuestro Express”). It presents an impulsive, temperamental and Yanqui-hating Duran, the face of Panamian nationalism during the “Give us the Canal” 1970s. He took titles in multiple weight classes, going a very macho toe-to-toe with all comers, often knocking out opponents with those rock-hard fists.
Edgar Ramirez plays Duran with a dazzling brio, a true “street kid” who brawled his way was from stealing fruit from trees inside the U.S. “Canal Zone,” to champion of the world.
Robert DeNiro brings a world-weary caginess to Ray Arcel, the veteran American trainer who was forced out of boxing by the mob, but got back in to turn “the greatest fighter I’ve ever seen” into a world champ. Not that Duran wanted that. Remember, he had a life-long antipathy for gringos.
“I don’t need advice from an American.
DeNiro’s Arcel narrates the story, which begins with Duran’s childhood and the days when Arcel crossed the wrong “wise guy” (John Turturro, quietly menacing) and had to give up the sport he loved. Arcel is full of grandfatherly advice in the corner.
“Luck is a woman you must seduce.” And he endures the taunts of the jerk he trained, an insecure man who could flip out if you so much as complimented, in a warning way, a foe they needed to prepare for.
“you love him so much, go and train HIM!”
Ramirez (“Joy,” “The Liberator,” “Point Break”) devours the screen as Duran, a man of dash and desire who eats like someone who used to starve (he did) and pursues everything he wants with an alarming vigor — including the rich chica rubia (blonde) school girl he eventually married (Ana de Armas of “War Dogs”).
Ruben Blades is the long-suffering rich Panamanian who sponsored Duran, and put up with him. A couple of solid character actors impersonate promoter Don King (Reg E. Cathey) and Howard Cosell.
And Usher Raymond transforms himself from pretty boy singer to pretty boy boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, a guy who fought Duran, lost and figured out how to beat him. It’s a canny performance, not a showy one. Duran got under his skin, and vice versa.
“I will make him fight like a man!” Duran declares.
DeNiro’s Arcel is the force of calm in the corner, trying to give his fighter discipline, hoping the world will see him as the harbinger of Boxing’s Greatest Era, which he did.
A nice touch — Arcel brings a comb into the corner with him and grooms Duran’s hair during his between-rounds pep talks. Nothing more demoralizing to an opponent than for you to come back out there, handsome and unruffled as ever, after what the other guy was sure was a brutal, I’ve-got-this-guy-beat round.
This is Ramirez’s movie, a celebration of Duran that includes the sex, the infidelity, the America-bashing, the drugs and the indiscipline (hard to make weight when you love to gorge). It’s a playful, entertaining turn and he brings an exuberance to the guy that wins you over, even if you are a Leonard-loving Yanqui.
And he says he never uttered the phrase “No mas,” as he waved his gloved hands, mid-round, giving up in a rematch with his nemesis, the charismatic Yanqui Guar Ray Leonard.
Maybe he didn’t. It’s entirely possible Cosell, calling the fight at ringside, got carried away with the little Spanish he knew and blurted that out to the world.
But no matter. “Hands of Stone” is still a first-rate boxing picture, a B-movie with just enough A-picture touches to make it sting.
MPAA Rating:R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity
Running time: 1:45