De Niro’s Hands of Stone and the boxing movie revival

De Niro back in the ring - Hands of Stone

De Niro back on the ropes – Hands of Stone

Ahead of Jonathan Jakubowicz’s Hands of Stone release, Getintothis’ Laurence Thompson looks back on boxing in movies and wonders if this latest episode offers anything new.

Name the Robert De Niro movie. A powerful, heavy-handed, intimidating pugilist who aspires to pit his prowess against bigger boxers. A snarling, spitting, cold-eyed figure, who gets into the ring against the great Sugar Ray and hands him his first defeat.

A man who, in the rematch, is bested in devastating fashion.

I could be describing Raging Bull, still (alongside Taxi Driver) the most revered of De Niro’s collaborations with Martin Scorsese, in which he embodies the complicated and controversial former world middleweight champion Jake La Motta. But it’s also a glove that fits the upcoming Roberto Durán biopic, Hands of Stone. This time, De Niro is in hero’s corner, portraying Durán’s legendary trainer Ray Arcel while Édgar Ramírez tackles the lead role.

The handsome and talented Ramírez, who is well regarded on the continent since Oliver Assayas’ estimable 2010 television miniseries Carlos, is perhaps best known in the U.S. for a supporting part in Zero Dark Thirty, and will be hoping Hands of Stone proves his breakout role with Anglophone audiences.

The similarities between La Motta and Durán don’t stretch far beyond their matches with Sugar Ray Robinson and Leonard respectively, so don’t expect a re-tread of the 1980 classic. For one, Durán was a better fighter; the Bronx Bull may have been a formidable rough-and-tough swarmer with a jaw of iron, but the Panamanian is one of those few in boxing history who can be ranked the equal of Muhammad Ali, Willie Pep or Joe Louis.

However, both men’s stories present challenges to the screenwriter: just as there was no redemptive third act to LaMotta’s tale (he’s alive and well at the age of 95, wholly unrepentant) Durán just kept going and going, taking and winning fights into the 1990s and 2000s until a car accident mercifully called time on a career that reached across five decades.

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Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin’s solution was to make Raging Bull a study of destructive masculinity, a film about how a man’s strength can prove his undoing. However, while Durán might be the perfect subject for a portrait of machismo, he never suffered the kind of turmoil in his personal life that made Raging Bull so compelling – in fact, it was his sheer toughness that allowed him to continue to score big, important victories a long time past his prime, adding greatly to his legacy.

But neither was Durán a Rocky-style underdog. Although ironically, the man himself can be seen in Rocky II, dancing circles around the hapless Balboa in a sparring session. When he saw the film, Muhammad Ali stopped complaining about the lack of realism for a second when Durán was on screen, remarking with surprise that the apparent extra knew what he was doing between the ropes. Hands of Stone’s trailers emphasise the disadvantages Durán endured, from being raised in poverty on the streets of 1950s Panama City to having to battle the slickest, most talented American boxer of his era.

But while Sugar Ray Leonard was the bookies’ slight favourite in their first bout, by 1980 Durán was already a legendary figure in the boxing world: he had amassed an incredible 71-1 record with no unavenged defeats, absolutely dominating the lightweight division after controversially taking the world title from Scottish hero Ken Buchanan eight years earlier.

And although the trailer, presumably for dramatic purposes, makes it look as though Durán loses the first fight and has to launch a comeback (perhaps accompanied by Carl Weathers and some Eye of the Tiger-style theme music), in real life it was the other way around: Durán outpointed the brilliant Leonard, even toying with him in the final rounds, before Leonard gained his humiliating revenge in the rematch by forcing Durán to quit.

In further un-cinematic fashion, Durán was happy to play the villain against the American champion, verbally abusing him in public and even telling Leonard’s wife JuanitaI’m going to kill your husband” to her face. More Clubber Lang than Rocky Balboa, then.

However, even Raging Bulls are sold as Rockys, now. The trailer for Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 The Wrestler stressed the hero’s return element of the plot, but the apex of the film itself reads better as the selfish mid-life crisis-indulgence of Mickey Rourke’s troubled protagonist. Southpaw, Jake Gyllenhaal’s second bout with the spirit of De Niro after his Travis Bickle-for-the-2010s turn in Nightcrawler, was also made to look like a defeat-and-comeback flick. In fact, it was practically a remake of King Vidor’s pre-Code masterpiece The Champ, a self-destruction story so moving it would make LaMotta flinch. (Unfortunately, like Franco Zeffirelli’s 1979 remake, Southpaw did not live up to the original.)

The Champ should remind us that there’s more than two ways to do a boxing movie. Its heart is not in the ring, but in the superb father-son chemistry of the two lead roles, Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper (a pairing so successful, they would be cast together in four further pictures, including the famed 1934 adaptation of Treasure Island). Yes, its pure melodrama – but some of the best sports films are, and this was perhaps the best sports movie made for a long time.

Until 1980, The Champ’s only real competition for the title was The Set-Up, Robert Wise’s 1949 film noir about an aging prize-fighter choosing between pride and pragmatism in his final bout. But there were a few contenders in the Classic Hollywood era. Noir was a perfect arena for boxing movies – fighters, trainers and fixers could brood and ruminate endlessly in its smoky backstage rooms and dark corridors.

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See Humphrey Bogart’s last outing, The Harder They Fall, for an example, and for a film not so much about the sport itself as the conflicts between PR and journalism, between legend and fact. Or the despairing Kirk Douglas vehicle The Champion, released the same year as The Set-Up, to savour more hard-boiled existentialism on screen.

The point I’m making is that Rocky, with its Neo-Realist Philadelphia aesthetic and feel-good themes, broke the mould, just as The Champ had set it. Raging Bull, while immersed in the same chiaroscuro moodiness as its 30s and 40s predecessors, broke it too by stripping back plot and melodrama and re-centering the movie as a psychological requiem mass, Scorsese bringing his art house sensibilities to bear to ratchet up the intensity almost beyond endurance.

Because of its innate dramatic force, boxing makes for better movies than any other sport, but we’ve seen little innovation since the New Hollywood era. In recent times, for their varying strengths and weaknesses, Cinderella Man, Ali, Rocky Balboa, Grudge Match, Creed and The Fighter are all essentially movies to make the audience feel better. (Even the relatively melancholic Million Dollar Baby – another underdog pic– was a feel-good movie in that it congratulated viewers with enlightened opinions on euthanasia). Boxing devotees will hope Hands of Stone lives up to the legacy of its daunting protagonist, but film fans will just be wishing for something daring to be different.