The Iron Claw (2023)

‘Iron Claw’ struggles to get a hold

As a child growing up in Nebraska in the 1960s, I spent many a Monday evening watching a locally produced TV show somewhat presumptuously titled “All-Star Wrestling,” on which the likes of Verne Gagne, Mad Dog Vachon, Dick the Bruiser and The Crusher would pummel each other into submission amid snake oil ads for some miracle elixir called Geritol. But the hulking gladiator who enthralled the most was a fearsome Texan bearing the Teutonic moniker of Fritz Von Erich, never failing to unleash his patented weapon, the dreaded iron claw.

It would instantly render all opponents defenseless. But even as a highly impressionable 8-year-old, I had my doubts that a hold akin to gripping a foe’s head like a palmed basketball could prove so incapacitating. Age and experience eventually justified my disbelief, but it did nothing to diminish my admiration for Mr. Von Erich. Even in my teens, as I outgrew the flash and sass of professional wrestling, I held an affection for the vicarious joy those tustlers in tights brought me as an oft-picked upon child.

Eventually, Von Erich and his brethren faded from memory … until last week, when I sat down to watch Sean Durkin’s Oscar-baiting “The Iron Claw.” Initially, I failed to make the connection between the title and the wrestling hold I witnessed as a child. But as soon as I heard the name Fritz Von Erich, I was transported 60 years back in time to my parent’s living room.

Naively, I wondered, “Why would they make an epic film about Fritz Von Erich”? It had somehow escaped me that Fritz and his wife, Doris, produced four (actually five) championship-caliber proteges who dominated pro wrestling in the 1980s. I also had no concept of the unendurable tragedies that befell their kids, one by one in a short span between 1987 and 1993. Was it, as the film suggests, a family curse? Or, was it something much more verifiable and disturbing, like a father pushing his children to achieve the goals he failed to realize as a man and an athlete?

Durkin’s original script comes down fully in favor of the latter, painting Fritz (an Oscar-worthy Holt McCallany) as a taciturn, over-demanding dad who gruelingly drove his kids until they could no longer handle the unreasonable pressure. But Durkin doesn’t stop there, fashioning his movie into a cautionary tale for all men looking to their sons to compensate for their own perceived failures.

While I found the heartrending story of the Von Erichs impactful, it never moved me to tears. Much of that is attributable to Durkin and his inability to impart the family’s fate in a manner visceral enough to travel from brain to heart. The film is often as cold and distant as Fritz, whom Durkin paints as a near monster.

This puts the onus on Zac Efron as the oldest surviving son, Kevin, and Boston’s Maura Tierney as the shell-shocked Doris to convey grief piled upon grief. Lucky for Durkin (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”), both nail their roles with a depth of feeling absent from the picture as a whole. That might not have been the case if Durkin had afforded us the merest opportunity to become as emotionally invested in doomed siblings, Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), David (Harris Dickinson) and Mike (newcomer Stanley Simons) as we do in Kevin and his mom.

Instead, Durkin offers up types rather than characters. David is the intellectual, Kerry the consummate gym rat, and Mike the sensitive musician who isn’t so keen on joining the family business. Creating further disengagement is his perplexing decision to outfit the boys in distracting wigs that appear to have been pilfered from the set of “Dumb and Dumber.” I was equally thrown off by the casting of Efron and White, who are no physical match for characters who in real life stood a good half a foot taller.

All the boys, including Fritz, are buff beyond belief, especially Efron, flaunting pecs and abs that would make Schwarzenegger weep. If only Durkin had toiled as hard on the script as his actors did on their muscles. Alas, it falls into the trap of most bio-pics by presenting the greatest hits with the minimum of context and substance. This also leads to many scenes feeling rushed.

Yes, you’re stunned by the volume of blows the family is dealt, but none of them resonate at the level they should because Durkin never gives his movie room to breathe. Getting even shorter shrift is Kevin’s assertive wife, Pam (a wasted Lily James), whose role consists mostly of fawning over hubby and teaching him a thing or two about love and sex.

Kudos, though, to cinematographer Mátyás Erdély and a game stunt crew for recreating highly realistic grappling in the ring, with massive bodies being hurled, twirled and catapulted over the ropes. Yes, it’s fake, which Durkin makes clear in a couple of toss-offs in which alleged enemies share laughs backstage as they choreograph their upcoming “death match.”

The irony of the latter is not lost. For several of the Von Erichs, the bouts were in many ways “deathmatches.” Much is made of the curse. And it’s given such credence, at least by Kevin, that he opts to use the family’s actual surname, Adkisson, when naming his and Pam’s children. Understandable. Living under that constant pall, believing the threat is real and fearing its fulfillment, must have been hell for all involved. For me, that should have been the crux of the movie. It’s what ultimately stays with you. And it’s surprising Durkin didn’t run with it, given that “Raging Bull” was reportedly his inspiration.

In the end, “The Iron Claw” is what it is, a finely crafted, well-acted indictment of bad parenting coinciding with even worse luck. You watch it in awe of the enormous effort that went into it, be it the actors’ physical transformations, the set decorators’ perfect evocation of the 1980s and a definitive love-hate reconciling with a sham sport that serves as a microcosm for a nation entirely too willing to believe only what they choose to see. But the impact should have been as jarring as a body slam onto concrete. Ultimately, it’s a bit like the old iron claw, more showy than effective.

Movie review

The Iron Claw

Rated: R for some sexuality, language, drug use, suicide

Cast: Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson, Lily James, Maura Tierney, Holt McCallany and Stanley Simons

Director: Sean Durkin

Writer: Sean Durkin

Runtime: 130 minutes

Grade: B-

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