Roberto Durán Hits the Big Screen

The life story of the legendary Panamanian boxer, Roberto Durán, better known as “Hands of Stone,” hits the big screen in a Latin American mega-production starring Edgar Ramírez, Rubén Blades, and the great Robert De Niro.

By Roberto Quintero
Photos: Carlos Gómez, Latinstock and Courtesy of  La Piedra Films

The wait is over. Hands of Stone, the biopic about legendary Panamanian boxer Roberto “Hands of Stone” Durán has made its commercial debut. The film chronicles Durán’s childhood and his first three world championships, focusing on one of the highlights of his career: his fight against Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980. “It is a classic epic of rise and fall and redemption,” as described by Venezuelan director and scriptwriter Jonathan Jakubowicz, who says he fell in love with the story of the pugilist from the teeming neighborhood of El Chorrillo. “Durán exhibits a blend of magnanimity and rage, violence and tenderness that I knew would allow me to say a lot about who we Latin Americans are in terms of culture.”

Jakubowicz had heard about Hands of Stone since he was child, although he actually knew very little. When he became interested in translating the story into a movie, he began to dig deeper into his passion for boxing and he discovered some fascinating aspects of the life of “El Cholo,” another nickname bestowed on the fighter. “All my research centered on him: his environment, his family, his friends, and his enemies. We spent countless hours at his house with all his relatives. His son Robin was one of our executive producers and he was the most helpful to us in understanding the boxer’s character.”

Aside from uncovering the nitty-gritty of Roberto Durán’s story, it was important to give the movie a Panamanian flavor, since the boxing idol is so strongly identified with the country. To make sure he got the Panamanian touch right, the filmmaker moved to Panama for the three years it took to plan the movie and then film and edit it. “It was essential for us to show the spirit of Panama,  which is why we put so much effort into filming in Panama and using as many Panamanian actors and locations as possible. Non-Panamanian actors also lived in the Isthmus nation for at least half a year to pick up the accent. We always had dialect coaches working with them on the set.”

No effort is too great for a biopic, a film genre that is very demanding and challenging for the entire artistic team. “There is always pressure. It is one thing to create a completely fictitious movie and another to film a story known to many and that means a lot to many people. But the pressure is never negative. It is a privilege to tell a story like this one and, in any case, the pressure makes you grateful for the opportunity to do it.”

The Cast is Key

One of the best features of Hands of Stone is undoubtedly its cast. Jakubowicz tapped his Venezuelan compatriot Edgar Ramírez, one of Hollywood’s Latin actors of the moment, to play the boxer. Since his appearance in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), Ramírez’ career in the U.S. film capital has really taken off. Last year he starred in the remake of Point Break (which earned more than $130 million at the box office) and he formed part of the cast of Joy (a comedy drama nominated for an Oscar and Golden Globe).

The 39-year-old Ramírez says that the great challenge presented by this character lay in understanding what it means to be a fighter. “I found it impossible to try to copy even the smallest movement by Durán without first experiencing what it was to be a boxer. Boxing permeates a fighter’s every word and action. It is ever present; the way he walks, eats, talks, tells jokes, or flirts with a woman expresses his identity as a boxer. So the greatest challenge was to delve as deeply as possible into the privations, the conflicts, the pressures, and the physical and emotional sacrifices made by a boxer.”

In pursuit of this goal, the actor undertook a rigorous boxing training regime with Hands of Stone’s children, Robin and Chavo. “Durán and his family were always there, ready to help and guide me, especially Robin Durán Iglesias, who also played my brother in the film. He was my first trainer, along with his brother Chavo, and he was there every step of the way as we created the character. He looks a lot like his father did when he was young, so the goal was to look as much like Robin as possible.”

The director calls Ramírez “an indefatigable actor.” He says that when the time came to film the fights, the star spent weeks boxing, up to ten hours a day, which really impressed the other boxers on the set.” “You can’t imagine how hard Edgar worked. The character’s personality is very different from his own, but it’s like he penetrated into the boxer’s very soul to portray the character. It is incredible that he learned to box so well, but the most amazing thing is that he captured the essence of the character. Anyone who sees the movie will be impressed by his transformation.”

The other great asset of Hands of Stone is Robert De Niro, one of the greatest actors of all time, who plays trainer Ray Arcel, another boxing legend. For Jakubowicz, working with De Niro was the experience of a lifetime. “De Niro was truly the man behind the project. I spent nearly a year working on the script with him until I convinced him to do the movie. We grew close during the process, so we had already developed a level of trust before filming began. But the truth is that we got a little nervous every time he stepped on the set. It wasn’t just anyone, it was Robert De Niro. He is in another league, both in real life and on the screen.”

From Cannes to the World

De Niro was the mover behind Hands of Stone’s world premiere at the recent Cannes Film Festival, as part of the event’s tribute to the extraordinary career of the New York-born actor and his contributions to the seventh art. Durán was also present at the premiere. He was his scintillating and smiling self, the epitome of elegance. He threw out jokes, one after another, just like he used to throw punches at his opponents. His feelings played across his face. His eyes filled with tears when the audience applauded after the film.

It was an emotional premiere and a heady experience. Jakubowicz still cannot believe it. “Those days were incredible: great anxiety followed by great joy. The audience clapped for fifteen minutes, which is very unusual in Cannes, where it is common for the audience to boo. Every filmmaker dreams of debuting a movie there and honestly, it was better than the dreams I had as a young film student.”

Now we await the verdict of the general public. Hands of Stone opened commercially on August 26 in more than two thousand cinemas in the United States, Panama, and Israel. It is expected to open soon in Europe and the rest of the Americas. “I hope that Panamanians who see the movie will once again feel the pride they felt with every win by ‘El Cholo’. And I want them to understand that only a great country and a great society can produce men as strong, noble, and honorable as Roberto Durán,” concluded Edgar Ramírez.