Tuesday, February 27, 2024

"The Iron Claw": review

L to R: David Von Erich (Harris Dickinson), Kevin (Zac Efron), and Kerry (Jeremy Allen White)

[WARNING: spoilers.]

"Inspired by a true story," writer-director Sean Durkin's 2023 sports drama "The Iron Claw" stars Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson, Maura Tierney, Stanley Simons, Holt McCallany, and Lily James. It is the story of the famous-but-ill-fated Von Erich family, considered royalty in the theatrical world of professional wrestling. The story more or less centers on Kevin Von Erich (Efron, looking beefy), the now-eldest son after the long-ago death Jack Junior, who died as a little kid. It's the 1970s, and Fritz Von Erich, who used to be Fritz Adkisson before changing his surname, owns and runs the WCCW, or World Class Championship Wrestling. The surname change is important: Von Erich is Fritz's mother's surname, and her family suffered a series of tragedies, leading to a spooky belief in "the Von Erich curse," i.e., tragedy will follow the family wherever it goes thanks to that surname.

Fritz (McCallany) started out as a pro wrestler himself, but the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship belt (sic, that's "Worlds" without an apostrophe) has always eluded him. Eldest son Kevin and second son David (Dickinson) are themselves wrestlers; third son Kerry (White) is on the path to be an Olympian, and youngest son Mike (Simons) prefers to play in a band. The brothers love and support each other, and while patriarch Fritz can sound harsh and driven, the story is at pains to show he's not insane; he merely wants one or more of his sons to nab that championship belt. When President Jimmy Carter boycotts the 1980 Summer Olympics, Kerry's dreams of competing are shattered, and he joins the wrestling stable. Later on, Mike, too, is persuaded to wrestle, which he does reluctantly. Family matriarch Doris (Tierney, looking old) is tough, and she tells her boys not to look to her if they have problems: they should settle things among themselves.

But then the tragedies come, one on top of the other, with Kevin essentially a helpless witness as fate or destiny picks his family apart. Brother David develops a stomachache, and during a trip to Japan, he dies of gastroenteritis. Kerry, no longer an Olympic hopeful, steps up and turns out to be popular because he's great at trash talking as well as a competent wrestler. Kerry eventually wins that long-coveted championship belt, but when he goes out for a drunken, nighttime motorcycle ride immediately after, he crashes and loses a foot, putting him in constant pain, which leads to a drug addiction. Kerry eventually gets a top-of-the-line foot prosthesis and is able to wrestle again, but the pain never leaves him, and even after switching from the WCCW to the up-and-coming WWF (World Wrestling Federation, much later known as the WWE—World Wrestling Entertainment—after embracing its theatricality), his popularity wanes. Little brother Mike severely injures his shoulder during a match, and when he goes into surgery, he suffers from toxic-shock syndrome, which leaves him brain-damaged. Kevin, seeing all this happening, has in the meantime married his sweetheart Pam (James), and when he has his first son, he registers the boy's surname as Adkisson, not Von Erich, in a superstitious effort to avoid the Von Erich curse.

As if all of this weren't bad enough, Kerry confesses to Kevin that he's still in pain, and his waning celebrity in the WWF means he's in bad financial straits. Mike, meanwhile, is coherent enough to know there's no recovering from his brain damage, and he kills himself by swallowing pills. Kerry, after confessing his problems to Kevin, drives himself to his father's ranch and shoots himself. Kevin is now an only child; he has no more brothers. By this point, he has a second son, and both of his sons see him crying while sitting on the front lawn one day. Kevin explains he's sad because he has no more brothers; in his imagination, he sees his brothers in the afterlife meeting up together, even with Jack Junior, who died as a little boy. Kevin's sons say they can be Kevin's brothers, and the story ends with the family, including Kevin's wife Pam, playing catch.

While the movie didn't have me blubbering like a baby, it caused a deep sadness within me. Part of the reason may have been the coincidence that two of the Von Erich brothers were named Kevin and David (in my family, we three boys are Kevin, David, and Sean). Seeing Kevin lose his little brothers one by one was depressing and felt personal. I know I'd be destroyed if I ever lost either or both of my little brothers. In the film, the Von Erich brothers could be competitive, and they were always keen to please their ambitious father, but it was obvious they loved each other and enjoyed hanging with each other. Pam is utterly charmed by this loving family dynamic. It was also obvious that the father, though driven, wasn't a monster. The movie could have taken the easy route of blaming everything on the dad, but while Fritz has major flaws and a narrow vision of the family's future, it's also clear that he loves his boys, even if he does do stupid things like "rank" them in order of preference, with a dinner-table warning that the rankings could always change.

I imagine the thing most people will be curious about is whether Zac Efron, known for cheery musicals and raunchy comedies and what is usually a much smaller, thinner frame, holds up his end of the story, dramatically speaking, and the good news is that he obviously worked his ass off to look the part of a huge Von Erich boy, and he ably conveys the searing feelings of loss and sadness as, one by one, his brothers disappear. All the other cast members also do excellent work in their roles; Holt McCallany as Fritz deserves special mention as the dad who never lets up. Maura Tierney, on whom I had a crush during her time on "ER," has aged a lot and looks almost unrecognizable, but she does fine work as the lone island of estrogen surrounded by a raging sea of testosterone. (The Texas twang she adopts for the film also helps to hide her identity.) A bit like my #3 Ajumma after she lost her husband, Tierney's Doris starts painting again after losing most of her sons—maybe it's her way of trying to keep them close to her. Lily James is also fine as Pam; an English actress, James often seems to land parts requiring an American accent (cf. "Baby Driver").

For me, "The Iron Claw" hits home on several levels. It's excellently acted, unapologetically tragic, and just a plain-old good story that runs from the 70s through the 80s, with all of the bad hairdos and awkward short-shorts. The Von Erichs did eventually get inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2009 (as we learn during the ending title cards), and Kevin fulfilled his dream, mentioned when he first met Pam, of owning a ranch on whose property his entire family is able to live—four children and thirteen grandchildren. That's as close as we get to a happy ending: the family flourishes, and the tragedies seem to have stopped.

Oh, yes: the title "The Iron Claw" refers to what was originally Fritz's wrestling move: gripping the opponent's cranium in one hand and squeezing, seemingly causing pain via pressure points on the skull—a move that all of the sons also learned. As with other wrestling movies, "The Iron Claw" makes it somewhat ambiguous as to how much of what we're seeing is real versus theater. I have more respect for wrestlers after having watched the MTV reality-TV series "Tough Enough" years ago, a series that shows the hellish training that young, aspiring pro wrestlers have to go through to become ring-worthy. Pro wrestling is "real" insofar as the choreography amounts to relentless stunt work, and wrestlers are routinely injured as they provide the audience with a show. The Von Erichs were acknowledged masters of entertainment, but it was their bad luck to suffer more than average from the cold touch of the Grim Reaper. In fact, the movie leaves out one more son: Chris Von Erich, the actual youngest son after Mike, who also died by suicide. The director contended that, even for a movie so marinated in tragedy, this would have been one tragedy too many.


ADDENDUM: a brief list of wrestling movies I've seen (all of them good):

• "The Wrestler" (Mickey Rourke)

"Fighting with My Family" (Florence Pugh)

• "Foxcatcher" (Steve Carrell, Channing Tatum)

"The Peanut Butter Falcon" (Shia LaBoeuf)

I have zero interest in professional wrestling, so it's fascinating to me to see so many good movies come out of that sport. (And there are dozens more wrestling movies.) As you see, two of the above movies remain unreviewed; I guess I'd better get a move on and review them. ("Foxcatcher" got a mini-review, but I regret that. It deserves a fuller consideration.)


John Mac said...

Another gem from the best reviewer I've read. Never been a fan of pro wrestling, but the family story does seem compelling. So much to see, so little time.

John from Daejeon said...

Saw all this as it happened growing up in Texas with only two TV channels, but the film was good and pretty accurate. They were legends to young boys growing up during those times. And as we didn't know wrestling was fake, a lot of kids got injured trying to perfect those moves and the iron claw.

Goggling wrestlers isn't pretty as so many died young and many by their own hands.

Kevin Kim said...

John Mac,

I hope we see a review of "Shameless" soon! I'm curious to know more about the series that held your attention over eleven seasons.