De Niro returns to form as boxing trainer in ‘Hands of Stone’

Edgar Ramirez, left, as Roberto Duran, throws a punch at Sugar Ray Leonard (played by Usher Raymond), in “Hands of Stone.”
Edgar Ramirez, left, as Roberto Duran, throws a punch at Sugar Ray Leonard (played by Usher Raymond), in “Hands of Stone.” The Weinstein Company

After so many late-career missteps and lazy cash grabs that have diminished his reputation as one of America’s great screen actors — “Dirty Grandpa” anyone? — it’s wonderful to see Robert De Niro thoroughly engaged in a role that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that he still has greatness in him. In a role that’s meaty and demanding, he delivers a performance that’s not showy, but rather quietly powerful and deeply affecting.

There’s a satisfying symmetry to the fact that it’s a boxing movie in which he fully reconnects with his muse. In a sense, he’s come full circle. “Raging Bull” was and remains his career pinnacle, while his work in “Hands of Stone” ascends to near that rarefied height.

He’s back in the ring, but not as a fighter. He went that latter route in 2013’s “Grudge Match,” a cash-grabbing travesty. In “Hands of Stone,” he’s playing the trainer of Roberto Duran, the boxer whose nickname is the title of the picture. As Ray Arcel, De Niro is portraying a man who is a master of the art and science of boxing. He’s a cerebral guy, conducting what amounts to a master class in the sweet science for Duran. I can’t recall another boxing movie that takes the audience so deep into ring psychology and strategy as this one, with Arcel explaining the intricacies of the physical aspects — punching and footwork — and the psychological dimension of the sport — including the importance of combing his fighter’s hair during bouts as a tactic to psyche out an opponent — with passion and confidence born of decades of working with scores of fighters.

As Duran, Edgar Ramirez is a charismatic presence, capturing his character’s volatility, toughness and, above all, anger. Writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz, a Venezuelan filmmaker making a stunningly self-assured Hollywood feature debut, constructs a tale that combines geopolitics with fisticuffs as he traces Duran’s rise from the streets of his native Panama (much of the picture was shot there, and much of the dialogue is in Spanish). Duran embodies the resentment of Panamanians to the U.S. control of the Panama Canal, control, which ended by a treaty-mandated handover by the U.S. to Panama during his boxing career.

The picture’s fight sequences are powerfully staged, particularly the bouts with Sugar Ray Leonard (elegantly portrayed by singer Usher). Duran’s famous “no mas” moment, in which, out of shape and unwilling to compete, he quit in the middle of a round, is gripping.

The acting in all roles is first rate, but in this one De Niro regains the title of undisputed champion.

Hands of Stone

 1/2 out of 5

Cast: Robert De Niro, Edgar Ramirez, Ana de Armas, Usher Raymond and Ruben Blades.

Director: Jonathan Jakubowicz

Running time: 1:45

Rated: R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity.