“The Iron Claw” is not only about a family of wrestlers, but the movie perhaps inadvertently mirrors the reaction wrestling elicits from those who aren’t into it. That is, it’s possible to admire the commitment, showmanship and athleticism on display without feeling particularly engaged by it, which is, alas, about the strongest reaction this “Claw” can scratch out.
Based on actual events, the film tells the very strange story of the Von Erichs, a group of wrestling brothers who picked up the mantle from their dad Fritz (played by Holt McCallany), who faced a run of tragic occurrences that prompted speculation about a family “curse,” a belief also embraced by the eldest brother, Kevin (Zac Efron).
Like his co-stars, who include Jeremy Allen White (“The Bear”) and Harris Dickinson (“Triangle of Sadness”), Efron has sculpted his body into wrestler shape, displaying what appears to be somewhere between an eight- and 12-pack in terms of his abs.
Yet his taciturn character, who along with the other brothers is dominated by his imperious pop, offers little to latch onto underneath the rippling muscles and extremely unflattering 1970s and ‘80s haircut. Indeed, the best hope of an emotional connection resides in the young woman Kevin meets and eventually marries, Pam (Lily James), who approaches him after a match and asks him out, a sign of his lack of initiative that’s generally indicative of the muted drama to come.
Then again, the real architect of the conflict is Fritz, who remains obsessed with the politics of pro wrestling and his belief the powers that be denied him the world title he coveted and deserved.
Harris Dickinson (left) in “The Iron Claw.”Brian Roedel/DSC00287.ARW/Brian Roedel
As a consequence, he’s desperate for his sons to attain that glory and bring it into the family, bitterly driving them with scant pushback from his wife (Maura Tierney), and behaving particularly harshly toward his youngest son (Stanley Simons), a sensitive sort who prefers music to body slams.
Although an ensemble piece, Efron is basically first among equals, exhibiting a vulnerability that’s easily lost, or overlooked, given what has been and is likely to be the preoccupation with his hulked-out physique.
What blunts the overall narrative, though, is the nature of wrestling itself, inasmuch as the outcome is “prearranged,” as Pam puts it in asking Kevin how the mechanics work. While writer-director Sean Durkin meticulously replicates the physicality of those matches – some against famous wrestlers of the day, like Ric Flair – it’s hard to gin up much excitement or suspense when, unlike sports movies, the combatants are acting out a violent but heavily choreographed dance where the winner is decided in advance.
The movie derives its title from the wrestling hold Fritz adopted and passed on to his progeny, one that supposedly inflicts such severe pain it forces the opponent to surrender.
“The Iron Claw,” by contrast, doesn’t possess quite so firm a grip. And whether it’s viewed in a theater or, more likely, somewhere down the road on an at-home platform, the movie’s earnestness can’t wriggle away from the pretty powerful temptation to tap out.
“The Iron Claw” premieres in US theaters with early-access screenings December 13 before expanding on December 22. It’s rated R.