They got it right, for the most part. But also somewhat wrong.
“Hands of Stone,” the biopic about the legendary Roberto Duran, opened in wide release nationwide on Aug. 26 and, on my personal 1-to-10 scale for grading movies, I’d give it, oh, a 7.8, which is a pretty high rating but maybe more generous a score than from anyone who isn’t a boxing buff, and especially a Duran fan. Being a nitpicker for detail, especially when it comes to films about boxing, I tend to subtract points for any inaccuracies about non-fictitious characters, and my experience is that the motion picture industry has an unnerving habit of routinely twisting real life into “reel life,” the better to heighten dramatic effect or to fit a particular director’s narrative, regardless of what the facts are.
What’s good is really good in “Hands of Stone.” Perhaps most importantly, the fight sequences are well-choreographed and believable (every punch doesn’t land flush, like in the “Rocky” series) and the acting solid, particularly so when Academy Award winner Robert De Niro as Duran’s crusty and knowledgeable trainer, Ray Arcel, and Argentinian actor Edgar Ramirez, as Duran, are on the screen, which is most of the time. And it’s hard to keep your eyes off Ana de Armas, a 28-year-old Cuban-Spanish actress cast in the important role of Felicidad Duran, Roberto’s devoted but frequently ticked-off-at-her-hubby wife. De Armas not only holds her own with the formidable male leads, but is so strikingly beautiful it calls to mind those scenes stolen in the superb 1980 Jake La Motta biopic, “Raging Bull,” by Cathy Moriarty as Jake’s coolly blonde wife Vicki.
Now for the nitpicks, some more consequential than others. Roberto Duran is 5-foot-7, and Martinez is clearly several inches taller. No big deal in most instances, but Ramirez appears to stand at least eye-level with Reg E. Cathey, wearing a fright wig as 6’5” promoter Don King, and who, with typical bluster, threatens a lawsuit if Duran, not given nearly enough time to adequately pare the 40 pounds for the rematch that he packed on while partying after his first, victorious meeting with Sugar Ray Leonard (portrayed convincingly, and somewhat surprisingly, by pop icon Usher, who is billed in the credits as Usher Raymond IV), doesn’t comply with the contract date agreed to by Duran’s manager, Carlos Eleta (Ruben Blades). It’s the same reason why readers of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels have a difficult time accepting Tom Cruise, who, like Duran, is 5’7”, as the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Reacher. You’d think someone would have thought to at least have Cathey wear some padding and to stand or sit on boxes to create the illusion of His Hairness’ actual height and bulk.
But a more troubling deviation from strict fact is the assignment to Arcel of such a disproportionate share of credit for Duran’s rise to greatness by Venezuelan-born director Jonathan Jakubowicz. An indisputably great trainer who was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in the non-participant category in 1991, Arcel arrives at Madison Square Garden just in time to see a-then 20-year-old Duran, in his U.S. debut, stop a decent journeyman, Benny Huertas, 66 electrifying seconds into the first round to run his record to 25-0, with 22 KOs. Just like that, Arcel decides to end his 20-year retirement from boxing (brought about by his having run afoul of the Mob) for a chance to work, for no pay, with the black-haired Panamanian destroyer.
Arcel’s instant fascination with Duran isn’t really hard to believe. Ed Schuyler Jr., the longtime Associated Press boxing writer, was at ringside for Duran-Huertas – part of the undercard of a show headlined by WBA lightweight champ Ken Buchanan’s 15-round unanimous decision over Duran’s countryman, Ismael Laguna – and was similarly struck by the Duran thunderbolt. “Benny Huertas wasn’t a great fighter, but he was a tough guy who could have gone 10 rounds with the 82nd Airborne Division,” Schuyler once told me in recounting his own introduction to a fighter that became one of his favorites to cover. “Duran got him out of there in a flash. You could see he was something special. It was evident to me that this was someone who was just born to fight.”
What didn’t quite ring true with me was the near-total absence from the movie of Freddie Brown, who co-trained Duran along with Arcel but is mentioned only once, during a press conference scene in which he and Arcel flank their fighter. The actor who played Brown, Hector Tarpiniani, is on screen maybe four seconds and has no lines. In the film credits listed on IMDb, his name comes after those of 63 others, including those who are credited as “Cop at fish stand,” “Restaurant patron,” “Man in the crowd,” “Prison guard,” “Black man” and “Black groupie girlfriend to Pachanga Lopez.”
Prior to my trip to my local multiplex theater to see “Hands of Stone,” I called Christian Giudice to gain insights into whatever it was about Duran that I didn’t already know. Although he now lives in North Carolina, Giudice is at heart still a Philadelphia guy, a graduate of Temple University with a master’s degree in journalism, who was so into Duran that, in order to author the comprehensive biography that he believed Duran’s life and career merited, he quit his job in 2003, became fluent in Spanish and set off to Panama to get at the heart of who and what boxing’s quintessential warrior was, and is. The result was “Hands of Stone: The Life and Legend of Roberto Duran,” a 384-page, meticulously researched spellbinder published in 2006 which was hailed by “The Times of London” as “A brilliantly detailed biography … Giudice’s book has successfully done Duran justice.”
Although Wikipedia lists “Hands of Stone,” the movie, as being “based on the book by Christian Giudice,” the author’s name does not appear in the closing credits, nor, I was surprised to learn, was he ever consulted by director-screenwriter Jakubowicz.
Asked if he would see the film, Giudice said he would, because … well, just because.
“I’ll watch it on Aug. 26 with everyone else,” he said. “It was a story bound to be told on-screen at some point. I’m not really hung up over how good (Ramirez) comes off in the fight scenes. I do hope the different nuances of Duran’s character are portrayed accurately. It seems they’re really going to play up the Ray Arcel connection, but I would rather hear about the young Duran who learned how to fight on the streets of Panama. There was a guy named Chaflan, who kind of created who Duran was. I don’t know if those early relationships are going to be in the movie in any meaningful way. I just hope it’s not just Duran and Arcel because I never got the sense that was Duran’s strongest relationship. I always felt he had a stronger relationship with Freddie Brown.”
Duran’s impoverished childhood, the street fights he picked so that adult spectators might toss him a few pesos, Chaflan and his relentless courtship of Felicidad, who was socially above his station, were all depicted with reasonable detail. But Jakubowicz, in an interview with Sean Crose of “Boxing Insider,” said it was exhilarating to “work with geniuses,” which might be a reference to Sugar Ray Leonard, who served as a technical adviser to help Usher prepare for his fight scenes, especially the “No Mas” (to this day Duran insists he never said those words) rematch with Duran in New Orleans. More likely, it was a nod toward De Niro, who might have passed on the project had his role not been substantially built up to reflect his iconic status in the industry. Jakubowicz even admits to accepting De Niro’s recommendations for script revisions that would make it easier for De Niro “to find Ray Arcel’s voice,” which is heard almost immediately.
But while the Arcel character might be more prominently featured than he otherwise would have been, there can be no denying that De Niro, 36 years after his Oscar-winning performance in what I believe to be the best boxing movie ever, “Raging Bull,” still is at or near the top of his game at age 73, so much so that I’m willing to forgive him (and Sylvester Stallone) for 2013’s “Grudge Match.” In any case, those close-to-authentic fight scenes are enough for me to overlook, for the most part, any missteps in the making of “Hands of Stone.”
In my estimation any sports movie ultimately succeeds or fails, regardless of its other virtues, if the action sequences fall flat. Two made-for-TV movie about Rocky Marciano, 1979’s “Marciano” and 1999’s “Rocky Marciano,” were KO’ed by reviewers, including me, because the lead actors couldn’t sell the in-ring stuff, even though the later version featured a De Niro-level acting genius in George C. Scott, as The Rock’s Italian immigrant father, Piero. At least the Marciano character in that one, played by Jon Favreau, was marginally more acceptable than Tony Lo Bianco, who in the 1979 version delivered filmed punches that wouldn’t have knocked down a third-grader.
Kudos thus must be awarded to De Niro for “Raging Bull” (although director Martin Scorsese went a bit overboard in making those scenes artistic), Daniel-Day Lewis for 1997’s “The Boxer,” Will Smith for 2001’s “Ali” and Russell Crowe for 2005’s “Cinderella Man,” because they understood that the importance of being able to convincingly deliver jabs, hooks and uppercuts was as important to selling their characters to audiences as delivering their lines.
Smith not only spent enough time in the gym in his preparations to play Muhammad Ali to add 35 pounds of muscle to his slim, 185-pound frame, he also put in 12 to 16 hours a day honing Ali’s signature moves. It set a standard that Ramirez and Usher appear to have taken to heart.
“I prepared (Smith) like he was getting ready for a world-title bout, not a movie,” Darrell Foster told me shortly before “Ali” was premiered on Christmas Day 2001. “It wasn’t unusual for us to work 12 to 16 hours a day on the fight scenes, and he never complained. The biggest problem with most boxing movies is that you have actors who fight like actors. They move like actors, they throw punches like actors and they are not believable at all in the fight sequences.”
Unfortunately, for Ali, the movie’s otherwise perfectionist of a director, Michael Mann, had the confrontational scene between Ali and his then-wife Belinda take place in Africa instead of the Philippines, because he wanted to include it and the picture ends with “The Greatest’s” triumph over George Foreman in “The Rumble in the Jungle.” I had to deduct major penalty points to the finished product for that glaring falsehood, as I also did with “The Hurricane,” the 1999 biopic about Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in which director Norman Jewison and screenwriters Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon shamelessly demeaned middleweight champion Joey Giardello by depicting his wholly justified points victory over Carter as a racial robbery. The now-deceased Giardello sued, and received an out-of-court settlement and a halfhearted apology from Jewison. Still, Hall of Famer Giardello’s legacy was somewhat besmirched, at least among moviegoers who didn’t know what actually went down the night he clearly outboxed Carter.
Bottom line: “Hands of Stone” – which concludes with Duran’s post-Leonard II embarrassment beatdown of Davey Moore — is worth a look, and maybe it is even good enough to rate inclusion on the list of upper-echelon boxing movies, all in all which make for the best celluloid treatments of sports because simple logistics dictate that it be so.
In “The Ultimate Book of Sports Movies,” published in 2009, co-authors Ray Didinger and Glen Macnow list the 100 best sports movies of all time, 14 of which are about boxing, far more than any other sport. If they were to update that list today, fight flicks undoubtedly would be mentioned even more often.
Didinger and Macnow make a compelling case for the sweet science as the most audience-friendly sport in a chapter entitled “Boxing Movies: The Winner and Still Champion.” They note the obvious warts – “too many sanctioning bodies, too many titles and too little star power have caused fans to drift away” – but “that has not stopped Hollywood from making movies about boxing. It has been a popular subject for more than a century (Thomas Edison filmed a James J. Corbett exhibition match in 1892) and it is likely to remain so whether anybody can name the current heavyweight champion or not.”
“For one thing, it is the easiest sport to film,” they explain. “There are two fighters, face to face in a confined space. It is not like nine players spread out on a baseball diamond or 22 men in helmets and pads sprawling across a football field. For the purposes of lighting and camera placement, a boxing ring is the perfect stage. It makes for a quicker and therefore cheaper shot.
“But more than that, boxing lends itself to melodrama. It is about an individual, not a team, so the writer can focus on the storyline. There is also the backdrop of vengeful mobsters (i.e., — John Turturro as the nefarious Frankie Carbo in “Hands of Stone”), double-crossing managers and other shady characters that populate the sport and provide a wealth of material for movies.”
Let it be noted here that Christian Giudice has authored two more boxing biographies since “Hands of Stone” came out — “Beloved Warrior: The Rise and Fall of Alexis Arguello,” published in 2012, and “A Fire Burns Within,” about Wilfredo Gomez, which came out just this year. Here’s hoping that if either one becomes someone else’s film project, Giudice will be allowed enough input to ensure that the “based on a true story” is as close to being completely true as La-La Land dares to allow.
But even Giudice acknowledges that Arguello and Gomez, as outstanding as they were at their craft, can’t command the attention that has clung and will continue to cling to Duran like lint on Velcro.
“He’s the one name from that time period that’s really kind of stayed fresh in people’s minds,” Giudice said. “I don’t know if that’s because of my book, the `30 for 30’ (special that was on ESPN) or this movie. I really feel people can relate with Duran through different generations.
“They just finished a `30 for 30’ on Arguello, but it hasn’t resonated with people the same way. It’s like there’s Duran, then everybody else from that time period.”