Boxing trainer Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro) is waiting patiently in the locker room at Madison Square Garden. He's just watched new talent Roberto Durán (Edgar Ramírez) pummel Benny Huertas to the mat in one round, and he knows that kind of raw animal nerve in a fighter isn't a common occurrence. When the champ reappears with a celebratory tray of ice cream, Arcel tells him what he sees: a street-honed brawler who's gotten dangerously reliant on expecting to knock an opponent out in the first 20 seconds, all skill and no strategy, vulnerable to any foe able to outthink him. He offers his services as a coach for free. Durán glares at this American with suspicion. No "Yanqui" ever did him any favors when he was a starving street urchin in U.S.-occupied Panama. Can this man be different?
The relationship between Durán and his trainer/mentor/father figure Arcel shapes the heart of the bilingual biopic Hands of Stone, even though the movie's full scope is Durán's rise and fall and rise again in his career prime, including his vitriolic rivalry with Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond) and their notorious "No más" bout. Along the way he woos his wife Felicidad (the carnally angelic Cuban actress Ana de Armas), suffers the usual drunken personal disgrace and redeems himself, hitting all the usual Joseph Campbell-ian moments required by a sports pic.
But just because this film follows the hero's journey doesn't mean it isn't heroic. Writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz threads a second, personal battle beneath Durán's flurry of punches, tracing how a combative braggadocio slowly comes to terms with his long-repressed fear of the godlike Americans -- including his own absent father -- who ground him into the dirt with their imperialist thumbs as a child. This personal touch raises the lively athletic melodrama out of maudlin telenovela territory, but it's still full of Latin fire, with well-choreographed, visceral boxing-match scenes, riotous 1970s décor and costumes, and muy caliente love scenes. Hands of Stone may not be an uncontested knockout like De Niro's fundamental boxing film Raging Bull (and what movie is?), but as a romp for sports fans, it's a unanimous win.