Review: 'The Iron Claw' Is Not Just Another Sports Movie

Yes, that’s Zac Efron flying high, and his acting is as impressive as his physique.
Photo via A24 Films.
Yes, that’s Zac Efron flying high, and his acting is as impressive as his physique.

The Iron Claw

Written and directed by Sean Durkin. Opens December 22.

How many different sports movies am I summing up in this one sentence? “Against all odds, an athlete claws their way to the top.” Based on a true story or not, this narrative trope has always been a key component of the subgenre and its seemingly limitless appeal.

That said, I’m not sure the basic framework has ever been taken more literally than in "The Iron Claw." Inspired by the real-life tragedy of the Von Erich family, one of the most iconic surnames in professional wrestling, writer-director Sean Durkin shows there are still original angles to explore the tried and true sport-drama conceit.

Prior to parenting pro wrestlers Kevin (Zac Efron), Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), David (Harris Dickinson) and Mike (Stanley Simons), Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany) was a highly decorated champion in his own right. Earning three world championships and close to two dozen NWA championships before retiring and transitioning to a career as a savvy promoter, Von Erich made it his mission to train up his sons to surpass his list of accomplishments in the ring. The family’s greatest challenger? Not another wrestling dynasty, but the so-called Von Erich curse. (Turns out Fritz’s signature finishing move “The Iron Claw” wasn’t the only thing passed down patriarchally.)

The Von Erich boys knew this dark cloud would linger over their heads for as long as they — and any future descendants of theirs — bore the last name. Still, Kevin and David trained hard to follow in Dad’s footsteps while Kerry and Mike set their sights on other equally lofty goals. With luck, the former’s Olympic hopes in track and field and the latter’s natural talent for music would be distinct enough from their old man’s path to skirt the generational smudge they fear awaits them like a Grim Reaper.

Despite these attempts to subvert fate, the steel grip of the Von Erich curse grabs ahold of each boy in turn. With this, near the midpoint of "The Iron Claw," writer-director Sean Durkin’s third feature transitions from a serviceable by-the-numbers biopic to an exceedingly harrowing melodrama. What initially felt like an interesting choice for Durkin — the man behind such psychological dramas as "Martha Marcy May Marlene" (2011) and "The Nest" (2020) — eventually proves to be right up his alley. This mid-film shift makes for a truly crushing blow as it moves away from standard genre fare and into much more affecting territory.

In shooting a movie of this sort, cinematographer Mátyás Erdély undoubtedly had his work cut out for him. From the pop culture staying power of the "Rocky" franchise to the continued success of the "Creed" spinoffs — not to mention the countless other boxing, wrestling, and fighting movies to put audiences on the ropes (or the many stars to come out of the WWE and other professional promoters) — it’s a very cinematic sport he’s dealing with here. Nevertheless, Durkin’s direction and Erdély’s shots manage to present inherently picturesque feats of athleticism in fresh ways.

Editor Matthew Hannam plays a part in this as well. A one-time collaborator with such filmmakers as Denis Villeneuve, Noah Baumbach, and the Daniels, it’s Hannam’s past work with Durkin on "The Nest" that informs his decisions here. The film avoids feeling like a Wikipedia speedrun with the help of some perfectly timed fight scenes and well-spaced breathing room dispersed throughout. These will either get your pulse pounding or bring it back down to a resting rate, just as any good sports epic should do. Even this is elevated above the norm, particularly during the instances where the closing shot of one scene blends with the opening shot of another.

I’ve hardly touched on the cast, which, to be clear, warrants a fair share of praise in all this. Those who already adore Jeremy Allen White from his stints on hit series "Shameless" and "The Bear" will not be disappointed by his time on screen here. That’s also true for fans of Holt McCallany from David Fincher’s filmography, who’ll be glad to see the character actor in a deservedly meaty role (even if it’s not a third season of "Mindhunter"). Maura Tierney and Lily James also earn a mention for doing more with their parts as mother and wife — traditionally two-dimensional archetypes in works about masculine men with unhealthy balances between career and home life.

This aside, I’d say it’s Zac Efron who deserves the most acclaim of all. With his Disney years long behind him (and his torrent of raunchy comedies trickling to a stream as of late), it’s about time he received a chance to shine in something more substantial. I’ve suspected him capable of a performance of this caliber since his supporting role in, strangely enough, Harmony Korine’s "The Beach Bum" (2019). Underrated and overlooked upon its release, Efron’s committed bit in that film as a party-loving pyromaniac named Flicker stands as a harbinger of the kind of dedication he’d bring to the far less goofy but just as engrossing part of Kevin in "The Iron Claw."

From its dependable beats to its winning ensemble to its all-enveloping late ‘70s/early ‘80s pastiche, "The Iron Claw" is destined to be a crowd-pleaser — though there’s nothing overtly pleasant about this tragic cautionary tale. From top to bottom, Durkin’s team (both on camera and off) understands the task at hand — to take a well-known true story full of familiar themes and take it to artful new heights — and, as a result, they largely succeed.

There’s no shortage of excellent titles to see this holiday season, but don’t be turned away by what ostensibly appears to be just another sports flick. It’s one of the most surprising gut punches of the year — a rock-solid melodrama rising up moments before the bell rings on 2023.