Review By Bel Hernandez
Opens Nationwide Thursday, August 26th
Make no mistake about it, the star in Hands of Stone is Edgar Ramirez. Why the movie trailer makes a point of focusing on Robert De Niro’s character of Ray Arcel is puzzling and misleading. This is the story of a poor kid who goes from living on the streets of Panama to becoming one of the greatest boxers of all time. Roberto Duran was nicknamed “Manos de Piedra” (“Hands of Stone”) due to his devastating punching power. He was highly lauded all over the world and his three fights against Sugar Ray Leonard were the stuff that made these boxing legends unforgettable.
For Latinos, who are by now used to Hollywood casting non-Latinos to play their heroes (the most egregious example was when Ben Affleck played real life CIA Operative Tony Mendez), having the talented Ramirez portraying Duran was not only a great choice, but about time they got it right. Although before we give Hollywood undue credit, the fact of the matter is that this film was produced independently by Jay Weisleder, Carlos Garcia de Paredes, Claudine Jakubowicz, and Jonathan Jakubowicz. Kudos to the Weinstein Company for picking it up for distribution.
However, screenwriter/director and producer Jonathan Jakubowicz (Secuestro Express), whose passion for the project and his persistence, working for eight years to finally get the movie made, deserves most of the credit. First it took Jakubowicz two years to finally convince Duran to let him write and make a film about his life. “He was very un-trusting because of past experiences of others trying to take advantage of him,” Jakubowicz explained. “I had to enlist the help of his sons.”
Once he had the rights he went after one of the greatest actors to grace the screen, De Niro, for the role of Arcel, the aging trainer who comes back to the fight game to train Duran after being run out of boxing years earlier by the mafia. It took a while but de Niro finally agreed, but not before insisting that they work together “to find” Arcel’s voice.
Jakubowicz put together a stellar cast beginning with Ramirez. Ramirez trained for eight months just to get all of Duran’s boxing nuances. With his acting credentials already tested in films like Steven Soderbergh’s Che, Peter Travis’s Vantage Point, The Bourne Ultimatum, and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, among many others, he immersed himself in his character and turned in one of his finest performances.
Usher Raymond (aka Grammy Award-winning musician Usher), whose charisma was key to playing Sugar Ray Leonard, also took his fight scenes seriously and trained just as hard as Ramirez. Cuban actress Ana de Armas who plays Duran’s wife Felicidad Iglesias is a revelation (and on the LatinHeat One to Watch List) with Hollywood already tapping her for such high profile projects like the Blade Runner sequel; and Panamanian Ruben Blades, plays the quasi heavy promoter Carlos Eleta and does so with much aplomb.
Jakubowicz recently talked about his casting choices to the Hollywood Reporter, saying: “This is an opportunity to change the Latino stereotype — we live in a world where you can call Latinos drug dealers and rapists and criminals and still have a chance at being President of the United States,” said writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz. “Those are the stereotypes you see in American movies and TV shows, but now you’re going to see a true legend: a Latino boxer who overcame all his demons and became an inspiration for an entire people.”
I was lucky to see the film at a special advance screening as part of the LatinoMedia Visions, monthly screening initiative. LMV’s guest list included actor Enrique Castillo (Weeds, Blood In Blood Out), Carlos Palomino, a former WBC Welterweight Champion and member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, who lost to Duran in June of 1979. The other two boxers born years after, but nonetheless know of Duran’s legacy; John Molina Jr. (WBO–NABO and WBC USNBC lightweight champion who recently beat Russian Ruslan Provodnikov, in June of this year). and Josesito Lopez ( North American Boxing Federation Light Welterweight Champion) All were excited to meet and speak with the boxing legend himself.
After the screening at the LMV after party hosted by Remy Martin, we wanted to hear from the boxers; about the story, the fight scenes, and how real they felt the fight scenes were?
“The movie was great, very inspirational,” John Molina exclaimed. “It was fun to watch Duran’s life and how it unfolded from an inside perspective. It actually motivated me to want to go out and fight.”
For Josesito Lopez, it was the relatability that touched him. “Many boxers can relate to his story, fighting yourself out of poverty,” he commented. “For the most part all boxing movies are inspirational and a lot of fighters can relate to that.”
However this movie speaks to all who cheer for the underdog. Alex Mendoza, owner of Alex Mendoza and Associates and film enthusiast summed it up this way: “Outstanding, great screenplay. Incredible editing. Best of all were the performances. And the wife (de Armas) steals the movie; even above Robert de Niro. Don’t miss it.”
I give this film five O’s to the #COOOOOList, for the story, performances, casting, non-stereotypical Latino characters and fight scenes.
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Production companies: Fuego Films, Vertical Media, Epicentral Studios, Panama Film Commission
Cast: Robert De Niro, Edgar Ramirez, Usher Raymond IV, Ana De Armas
Director-screenwriter: Jonathan Jakubowicz
Producers: Carlos Garcia de Paredes, Claudine Jakubowicz, Jonathan Jakubowicz, Jay Weisleder
Executive producers: Ricardo Del Rio, Robin Duran, George Edde, David Glasser, Bill Johnson, Max A. Keller, Jim Seibel, Benjamin Silverman, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Sammy Weisleder
Director of photography: Miguel Ioann Littin Menz
Production designer: Tomas Voth
Costume designer: Bina Daigeler
Note: The Weinstein Company just released the song “Champions” written and sang by Usher & Ruben Blades for the upcoming film Hands of Stone also premiering August 26.