Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Movie Review: The Iron Claw (2023)

Sean Durkin's The Iron Claw, a biopic about the seemingly cursed Von Erich wrestling family, is a noble, admirable effort but ultimately frustrating in its incompleteness.  The 132-minute film has to cover so much ground and so much tragedy neither the events nor the characters are given enough room to breathe.  

The saga begins with a flashback to patriarch Fritz Von Erich (a stern, show-stealing display of cold machismo by Holt McCallany), a struggling up-and-coming pro wrestler living with his wife and two sons in a trailer, vowing to become NWA World Champion so he can properly provide for his family.  We then skip ahead to 1979 to meet the elder of the two sons, Kevin (Zac Efron in a capable but perhaps too internalized performance), now an aspiring pro wrestler himself, working for his father's World Class Championship Wrestling promotion in Dallas.  Kevin is one of four surviving brothers; the Von Erich's first-born Jack Jr. died at age six (the film omits the actual youngest brother Chris and sort of amalgamates him into the Mike Von Erich character, the youngest in this film).  Fritz plays favorites with his sons and uses rather cruel encouragement to drive each of them to succeed.  David Von Erich is about to debut as a wrestler as well, and demonstrates natural charisma and a gift for gab which Kevin lacks.  Kerry Von Erich, who would ultimately go on to be the most famous of the bunch, is a track and field athlete training for the Olympics.  Mike is the shy, skinny kid of the litter who would rather study music than athletics.
The first act does a good job of establishing the family dynamics and the various personalities involved, but doesn't fully let us in or properly show us how and where things begin to go wrong.  Kerry's Olympic hopes are dashed when the US boycotts the 1980 Moscow ceremonies and Fritz encourages him to join his brothers in the ring.  Kevin, David and Kerry become big regional stars, and David manages to leapfrog his older brother to such an extent that the NWA chooses him to win their World Championship from legend-in-the-making Ric Flair.  But David dies suddenly in a hotel room in Japan (offscreen, we find out when Fritz dispassionately informs Kevin what happened and insists before David's funeral that none of his boys cry).  The cause of death, both in the film and according to David's official death certificate, was "acute enteritis" but numerous sources in the know have said it was a drug overdose.

David's death and the numerous tragedies that follow are kept at such an arm's distance that the dramatic and emotional weight of these terrible events is missing.  There's a lot we're told about but don't fully see, like Kerry's struggles with painkillers after a motorcycle accident that took his right foot.  The filmmakers erred so far on the side of subtlety that I feel like if I weren't already familiar with the real-life Von Erich saga I'd have been somewhat confused about what was happening.  I know a lot of footage was excised to keep the running time down but a film like this really needed another half-hour or more to fit everything in and to let us experience this tragedy with the characters; perhaps a miniseries would've worked better.  

This film weirdly assumes much prior knowledge from its audience, such as offhand mentions of "Hellwig" (Ultimate Warrior) being the WWF Champion and Jerry Jarrett (promoter and father of Jeff Jarrett) wanting to buy WCCW from the Von Erichs, but at the same time it's also full of historical inaccuracies, like the aforementioned omission of Chris Von Erich, or the idea that Kerry's motorcycle accident occurred the night he won the NWA Title, when in fact it was two years later.  It's too insider to appeal to non-wrestling fans, and not true enough to the real story not to annoy its target audience.

Then there's the issue of wrestler likenesses, which as a longtime fan I found very distracting.  Aside from the brothers themselves, who in the film don't resemble their real-life counterparts all that much (Kevin is jacked here while Kerry is short and lean, when in reality they were the same height and Kerry was the powerhouse), most of their various opponents only resemble reality in a cursory way.  The worst example of this is Ric Flair, played Aaron Dean Eisenberg, who has the right build but neither looks nor sounds like Flair, and sports an SNL-quality blond wig (most of the wigs in this film look pretty amateurish in fact).  

Visually the film is quite striking, with grainy shallow-focus and a smoky, dingy look to the Dallas Sportatorium where the Von Erichs most often wrestled.  The actual wrestling scenes depict only the most basic holds and moments from the various matches, which was a little disappointing but would be easy to overlook if the material outside the ring were stronger.  The cinematography in these sequences seem to take its cues from films like The Wrestler and Raging Bull but strikes a nice visual balance between the two.

Overall The Iron Claw feels like a very truncated version of a much better film, with choppy pacing, far too many historical revisions for the sake of dramatic convenience, some very bad wigs, and most importantly not enough meat to the characters and their conflicts that would've allowed us to feel the full brunt of these tragedies with them.  We're told the major things that happened to the Von Erich family but not really who they were.  It's a near-miss for me.

I give the film **1/2 out of ****.

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