Professional wrestling exploded in the 1980s and the Von Erich family dynasty was right at the forefront thanks to its trio of charismatic brothers and the family signature move: The Iron Claw. Unfortunately, the family’s own demons, or the “Von Erich curse,” saw the entire family devastated over and over again in their quest to rule the wrestling world and fulfill their overbearing father’s lifelong dream.
Zac Efron leads the cast as Kevin, the first brother to get a push towards winning the championship belt. Efron’s physical transformation for the role is astounding; his massive “Hulk” style body build paired with his recent facial reconstruction following a real life accident makes Efron unrecognizable. That doesn’t mean his role is just a gimmick — Efron doesn’t have heavy amounts of dialogue, but says volumes with body language and facial emoting, turning in one of the actor’s most complex performances.
Although, the real strength of The Iron Claw lies in the chemistry between the trio of brothers and their unusual, but lovely familial bond. Jeremy Allen White is Kerry, who loses an opportunity at Olympic wrestling gold when the United States backs out of participating. Harris Dickinson is David, the most charismatic but least wrestling sound of the brothers. The first half of the film establishes how the boys cherish family over everything and Efron, White, Dickinson effortlessly charm and endear you toward the family. Until the bottom drops out…
Yes, despite what some of the marketing might lead you to believe, The Iron Claw is not an inspirational tale of triumph over tragedy, it’s a story of surviving despite your world collapsing around. Once things start to go bad, this film delivers gut punch after gut punch to Kevin and the Von Erich family, and things are made all the more painful due to how much you’ve grown attached to them. Well, except retired wrestling father Fritz…
Holt McCallany is a magnificent bastard in the role of the Fritz, the Von Erich patriarch. His performance starts out almost likable, but subtly shifts over the course of the runtime to where you can’t believe the awful things he says and does — and he believes in what he’s saying and doing. On the brighter side, Lily James is quite lovely as Kevin’s love interest and future wife Pam. The role could easily have fallen into a trope of a wife, jealous of her husband’s profession, but the performance and writing give Pam complexity.
The film also contains seem neat recounting of iconic wrestling history alongside appearances of actors playing dramatized legends like Ric Flair for wrestling fans to enjoy. But despite great performances all around, The Iron Claw falls short of sports film greatness due to the bleak, slow train wreck that lies in the retelling of the tragic family story.
Score: 3.5 out of 5