‘The Iron Claw’ recaptures electric pro wrestling era

By Kirk Boxleitner
Posted 1/31/24



It's a measure of how far pop culture has progressed that "The Iron Claw" is neither Zac Efron's first critically praised performance, nor is it the first film about …

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‘The Iron Claw’ recaptures electric pro wrestling era




It's a measure of how far pop culture has progressed that "The Iron Claw" is neither Zac Efron's first critically praised performance, nor is it the first film about professional wrestling to earn critical acclaim.

"The Wrestler" revitalized Mickey Rourke's career 16 years ago, and Efron's performance was the best thing about "Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile" five years ago. But what still makes "The Iron Claw" stand out is how successfully it simulates an extremely specific era of professional wrestling.

Get ready for yet another rant from your 80s-obsessed Uncle Kirk about the zeitgeist he grew up in, but professional wrestling from the late 1970s through the first half of the 1980s had an electric on-the-launchpad frisson.

The professional wrestling industry was still balkanized between countless regional promotional affiliations, but with the rise of cable TV, it was just starting to break through into the mainstream media. Fritz Von Erich was ready for it, because while he'd aged out of the squared circle himself, he'd raised a herd of boys who had the combined skills to take the field by storm.

Kevin (Efron) was a powerhouse workhorse, while David (Harris Dickinson) turned out to be a personality kid on the mic, and Kerry (Jeremy Allen White, from "The Bear") was a literally Olympic-level talent. While the trio of brothers performed brilliantly together in tag-team matches, none of them individually possessed all the skills they needed to become the champions their dad wanted them to be.

After decades of solid supporting performances, veteran character actor Holt McCallany seizes his role as Fritz Von Erich by the throat, and refuses to let the audience's attentions go.

McCallany plays the elder Von Erich as a fascinating beast, a Joe Jackson-style warlock of a disciplinarian who's shamelessly unrepentant about ranking his own sons' value according to their latest showings in the ring.

And yet, as much as the Von Erich boys turned to unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with the stresses put on them by their father, what's undeniable is how much genuine joy they radiated when they were able to team up, go through their signature moves, and generate cheers from the crowds through their staged rivalries and roughneck personas.

I especially got a kick out of the scenes contrasting the Von Erich boys' trash-talking against their wrestling rivals in public, versus the spirited parties the brothers would throw with their opponents after their matches, revealing both sides to be fond colleagues.

Having covered a number of law enforcement K-9 programs for local newspapers, what struck me is that the Von Erich brothers had been trained, much like those dogs, to regard their work as "play," with the promise of rewards if they played the game well enough. But this also robbed them of outlets for expressing themselves, or even just blowing off some steam outside of wrestling.

In some ways, younger brother Mike (Stanley Simons) was the most well-rounded of the bunch, preferring to play in a band rather than follow in his father's footsteps. Unfortunately, that left him least prepared for what he would face when he was inevitably forced to join his older brothers in the ring.

Back when I was in the Navy, a few fellow sailors and I had a chance to interact briefly with the kinder, gentler Ric Flair (long story). So it was refreshing to be reminded of his harsher days as a "heel," which actor Aaron Dean Eisenberg's cameo recreates with teeth-baring relish in "The Iron Claw."

As much as this film serves as a screed against toxic masculinity, the reason why even those who aren't fans of professional wrestling are likely to remain invested in its drama is because Zac Efron's Kevin Von Erich is such an earnestly caring and protective older brother. In spite of some mistakes he makes, he raises his own two boys well enough that they ultimately enable their dad to embrace a healthy, non-toxic masculinity.

Be warned, this film delves into a slightly schmaltzy afterlife fantasy sequence near its end, and wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer has already cataloged a number of its historical and chronological inaccuracies, including its total omission of Chris Von Erich, the fifth of Fritz's sons to perform as a professional wrestler.

That being said, "The Iron Claw" also boasts fight sequences that benefit from having pro wrestler Chavo Guerrero Jr. — the fans still miss his uncle Eddie (Viva La Raza!) — on board as a consultant.