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Sunday, April 14, 2024
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REVIEW: ‘The Iron Claw’ strikes an evocative blow for the combat sport genre

Zac Efron faces opponents and tragedies in this powerful biopic

Combat sports movies aim to illuminate the mystique and darker facets of their professional industries. “The Iron Claw” is no exception. 

Through its display of 1980s professional wrestling history and exploration of the prestigious and complicated Von Erich family, “The Iron Claw” is a notable addition to the combat sports film genre. 

In this biopic by writer, producer and director Sean Durkin, the audience is introduced to the true and tragic saga of the Von Erich family. Renowned for their success in World Class Championship Wrestling and other esteemed wrestling organizations, the family gained international fame in the 1980s.

“The Iron Claw’s” narrative is eloquently recounted by the eldest living Von Erich brother, Kevin, portrayed by Zac Efron. The film tracks Kevin and his brothers' ascent in professional wrestling under the watchful eye of their accomplished yet domineering father, Fritz Von Erich, owner of WCCW (played by Holt McCallany). The title of the A24 film pays homage to the family's signature wrestling move.

Efron, sporting an authentic 80s haircut and a muscular wrestler's physique, seamlessly transforms into Kevin — a star of the National Wrestling Alliance — and delivers a profoundly emotional performance in the film. 

Kevin mentors his younger brothers and emerges as the first star of the family, but this dynamic soon changes when Fritz promotes his brothers, David (Harris Dickinson), and later Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), for world championship events over him. Through Efron’s performance, the viewer watches Kevin’s upbeat demeanor gradually change as he contends with his own Heavy Weight World Championship dreams while prioritizing the family’s success and obeying his father.

Starting in 1979, the film transports viewers to the late 1970s and early 1980s in Dallas, Texas, featuring vibrant shots of colorful pickup trucks and golden fields under the scorching Texas sun. A scene outside one of the Von Erichs’ wrestling events looks like it comes straight out of “Dazed and Confused.” 

Significant portions of the film unfold at the Von Erich family’s expansive estate outside Dallas, initially a picturesque backdrop that undergoes a poignant transformation into a place of mourning and turmoil.

Holt McCallany’s stern portrayal of Fritz adds a compelling and unsettling dimension to the film. McCallany consistently imbues Fritz with an intense demeanor as he enforces his will onto his sons and continually pressures them into the family business. 

Fritz’s quest to turn his family into a wrestling dynasty brings his sons’ fame and success, but it comes with a devastating cost.

Mike Von Erich (Stanley Simons) has a passion for singing and playing the guitar, but Fritz dismisses his musical aspirations, despite having a background in music himself. 

Kerry Von Erich is an aspiring Olympic discus thrower who comes home from training due to the United States’ boycott of the 1980s Summer Olympics in Moscow. Upon his return, Kerry listens to Fritz and gets into professional wrestling, but soon becomes disillusioned with his father when his career goes into decline. Jeremy Allen White excellently portrays the internally tortured Kerry, who ultimately reaches a breaking point with Fritz’s emotional unavailability. 

Still, Durkin could have dedicated more screen time to Fritz’s past and the origins of his destructive and all-consuming wrestling ambitions. Fritz is immediately introduced to the audience as a sometimes cold and dominant figure, and it would have been helpful for audiences to understand why his character is that way. 

It is important to note that the film does start with a black-and-white scene of Fritz’s early boxing days. Fritz was a pro wrestler in the 1960s in professional wrestling organizations like the American Wrestling Association and National Wrestling Alliance. In the scene, Fritz meets his wife Doris Adkisson (Maura Tierney) and a young Kevin and David after one of his fights. The family lives in a mobile home, and Fritz surprises Doris with a new car in the parking lot outside the fight venue. Doris criticizes Fritz for making a rash financial decision, but Fritz urges her to have faith in his plans for the future. 

The next scene cuts to 1979, where the family owns a large home in the Texas countryside. More scenes related to the families’ upward mobility would have made an informative addition to the film. 

The “Von Erich curse” appears as a motif throughout the film. On his first date with his future wife, Pam (Lily James), Kevin tells her about a decade-long curse that has affected the family since the childhood death of his older brother Jack Adkisson Jr. in 1959. 

Von Erich is the family’s ring name, while Adkisson is their actual surname, and Kevin attributes the curse to the family's adoption of the new name. Kevin speaks about the curse with a noticeable seriousness in his voice and, as the film progresses, the audience realizes why. 

“The Iron Claw” delivers a sensitive exploration of familial achievement and tension, offering a meaningful viewing experience for both dedicated wrestling enthusiasts and fans of compelling cinema.

This article was edited by Sara Winick and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Luna Jinks and Isabelle Kravis. 

Section 202 host Gabrielle and friends go over some sports that aren’t in the sports media spotlight often, and review some sports based on their difficulty to play. 

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