First, you have to understand Roberto Durán Samaniego’s significance. After Jack Johnson, he was only the second boxer to have a professional career that spanned five decades. In his day, he held titles in four weight classes: lightweight, welterweight, light middleweight and middleweight. He had a staggering 119 fights, winning 103, knocking out 70 of his opponents and losing only 16 bouts. He earned his nickname, “Manos de Piedra” (Hands of Stone), fairly.
Roberto Durán, born June 16, 1951, grew up on the streets of the Guararé District in the Los Santos Province in Panama. As a kid (David Arosemena), he lives with his mother and siblings. His dad, a Mexican-American Marine in Panama during the U.S. occupation, left the family when his troop shipped out. Durán finds refuge in the sport of boxing, training at the Neco de La Guardia Gym.
Duran, as a young man (Edgar Ramirez), gets a big break when he meets a wealthy local named Carlos Eleta (Rubén Blades) who backs him and helps him set up professional fights. His next stroke of luck is Eleta enlisting the aid of a Jewish boxing trainer Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro), who coached more than 2,000 fighters. The one hiccup with Arcel is that he has promised a local mafia don (John Turturro) that he will not train again for money. So he tiptoes around that pledge by working with Durán for free.
Arcel, a philosophical trainer, adds a big picture strategy to Durán’s sledgehammer fists. Their record of success together is amazing, which earns them a match against the very popular American boxer Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond). Before they even step into the ring, Durán gets into Leonard’s head by insulting his wife Juanita (Jurnee Smollett-Bell, “The Great Debaters”). Durán is egged on by his spouse Felicidad (Ana de Armas), who tells him: “Destroy their idol and make them respect Panama.” As the big fight approaches, both men are ready for a brawl.
Venezuelan writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz (“Secuestro Express”) takes an in-depth look at an imperfect man who was a near perfect boxer. He focuses on the emotional state of a young boy who was abandoned by his father and also angry because Americans occupied his country. Durán’s love/hate relationship with the US follows him into adulthood. The hostility and inner turmoil he feels is evidenced on the screen: The chip on his shoulder. Self-indulgent debauchery. Demeaning other men’s wives. Yet that same volatile attitude is the fuel he burned in the ring as he pummeled opponents.
Then there was Durán’s other side; the generous person who loved his country, neighborhood and family, almost to a fault. The press rarely showed that Durán. Hard to believe from reading headlines and seeing news excerpts on TV that he was a hero in Panama, or anywhere else.
Jakubowicz’s script sticks to an easy-to-comprehend, chronological order: Childhood. Adolescent flirtation and first romance with his future wife. Professional life. Career-ending default. Shame. And resurgence. Editor Ethan Maniquis lines up scenes, cuts the fat and ties things up nicely in 105 minutes. The production design by Tomas Voth and set decoration by Denise Camargo and Amy Williams creates interiors that evoke the era. The musical score (Angelo Milli) accents the proceedings. The interiors and location shots look vivid thanks to cinematographer Miguel Ioann Littin Menz.
For fans of the art of acting, pull up a chair and watch the masters of the profession work their craft. Ellen Barkin plays Arcel’s wife Stefanie with a New York City toughness that oozes the Bronx and Brooklyn. Smollett-Bell and de Armas add certain texture as the wives of the pugilists. Turturro is solid and dead-on as Frankie Carbo. Usher Raymond is a surprise casting choice, who is up to the challenge.
There is a scene at a dinner table when De Niro, as the fatherly Arcel, who loves Durán, and Blades, as the unscrupulous Eleta who thinks of the boxer as a commodity, argue over the soul, future and health of Durán, who is being drafted into a fight he’s not physically ready for. The raw emotions the two actors hurl at each are as lethal as any of the blows thrown in the ring. This is acting of the highest caliber. It’s a privilege to watch it.
It is fitting that the legendary Robert De Niro would be acting with Edgar Ramirez, one of the finest actors of this generation, which was evidenced by his Gold Globe-nominated role in “Carlos.” He was also superb in the lesser-known “The Liberator,” as the South American leader Simon Bolivar. The Venezuelan actor can bring any character to life and make it indelible. He, in this role, is handicapped physically because he doesn’t look like Durán. Yet he embodies him in spirit and mind.
Finally a smart team of creative people tells the story of a Latino sports figure. The surprise is that they focus their attention on a fallen hero, Roberto Durán. The bigger surprise is that Durán’s dramatic up-and-down life is more than worthy of all the attention.
This is an engrossing and compelling bio film.
Dwight Brown is a film critic and travel writer. Read more movie reviews at DwightBrownInk.com.