With his swaggering, heel-popping stride and combustible intensity, Édgar Ramírez is one of the most interesting actors working today. He has an oily handsomeness that can switch from charming to dangerous at a moment’s notice. And as a terrorist-for-hire in Carlos—his best role so far—he demonstrated his Method chops with an eagerness to transform his body to seemingly unhealthy limits for a role.
A lot of Carlos‘s punch came from its docudrama build. It was deglamorized study of a man who presented himself as a leftist guerrilla but luxuriated in glamour. In Hands of Stone, Ramírez plays real-life boxer Roberto Durán, whose socialist ideology was similarly eaten away by overindulgence. Durán’s poverty-stricken childhood was spent in the shadow of the US-occupied Panama Canal, but he became a world-champ through a string of matches from the late ‘60s to the Reagan era under the tutelage of trainer Ray Arcel.
Arcel—old enough to have seen boxing move from its mafia-run Golden Age in radio to the democratization and excess of television—is played by Robert De Niro, and the movie uses his presence and a slew of other cinematic signifiers to create a palpable sense of time and place. There’s a graininess to the images that evokes the period’s movies and an emphasis on fashion and interior design that recalls more recent recreations like Boogie Nights. The boxing sequences, in particular, overflow with dutch angles, freeze frames, bird’s-eye views, quick zooms, drone shots, and slow motion; even if De Niro wasn’t at the edge of the ring, they’d feel like Raging Bull on amphetamines. They’re undeniably captivating.
But the movie loses its punch outside of the ring. The political angle is dropped, characters appear and vanish, and it all goes on far too long. (As Durán’s rival Sugar Ray Leonard, Usher emits a charming, energetic decency that almost excuses the movie’s baffling shifts in attention.)
Venezuelan director Jonathan Jakubowicz is a first-timer, and somewhere beneath the movie’s flab and unrefined talent is a fleet, light-footed, middleweight boxing flick notable for its kitchen-sink aesthetic, confident embrace of plagiarism, and reflexive meta-text. But its dramas are unearned, its construction haphazard, and it runs out of steam long before its final act.
Still, watching Ramírez and De Niro share the screen is fascinating—they’ve collaborated before, but this is the first suggestion that Ramírez is the closest thing we have to De Niro in his wiry, combustive prime.
Hands of Stone. Directed and written by Jonathan Jakubowicz. Starring Édgar Ramírez, Robert De Niro, and Usher. Opens in Kansas City August 26, 2016.