Film distributors A24 did a smart and generous thing by inviting independent wrestlers, personalities, and others to a sneak preview of The Iron Claw, the biographical take on the very real Von Erich family, tragedy and all. They did it across North America too, and my screening was in Pittsburgh.

Be forewarned, my thoughts below are spoiler-filled for those who want to know if there’s an end credit scene starring Nick Fury (there is not). I simply can’t get these thoughts out of my head without sharing them with you here.

If The Iron Claw was made for mainstream appeal and not the diehard professional wrestling fan, they won’t score the pin. Now that that’s out of the way, the Zac Efron vehicle is a good, albeit inconsistent movie about the most infamous family the squared circle might have ever experienced.

The movie begins with Holt McCallany, perfectly cast as patriarch Fritz Von Erich, in the ring. Menacing as the real deal, McCallany as Fritz was booed while the title card plays. Minutes later, he’s outside with the always-exceptional Maura Tierney as Doris “Dottie” Adkisson, aka Von Erich, and their two sons.

The movie takes several minutes before anyone’s name is mentioned, or even where all of this is taking place. There’s no mention of Fritz’s legendary in-ring career, and after a brief argument between the parents in the back of a newly-purchased Cadillac, the movie flash-forwards to 1979.

Zac Efron portrays Kevin Von Erich. More jacked than the leaner Kevin Von Erich ever was, Efron looks more like Kerry Von Erich here; but because Kevin is the lone surviving brother, this is his movie.

Writer and Director Sean Durkin made an interesting choice to feature “posthumous” character Jack Adkisson, Jr. who died at age seven, and downright ignored the existence of Chris Von Erich, who actually appeared with his brothers in a wrestling ring. Reportedly to “consolidate” characters, the diminutive Chris appears to have morphed into Mike Von Erich, who here comes across as slow witted in some scenes. Stanley Simons plays Mike to a guitar riff tee. He has a couple of great scenes that display both his musical chops and foretell his end. Richard Reed Parry’s score is good throughout the film, but never more than with Simons as Mike.

Simons and Harris Dickinson, who plays David, look very similar and at times are hard to differentiate in some scenes, but both play compelling brothers and Von Erichs. Each takes a lot of the heavy lifting off Efron’s Kevin.

If mainstream family dramas tell you anything, the love story between Kevin and a flirtatious Pam is supposed to the thing that gets wives and girlfriends to the theater. Lily James, who has played Cinderella, among her litany of sweetheart roles, sweeps Kevin off of his feet after a match at the Sportatorium, which through cinema magic looks like a place any wrestling fan would want to go. James appears from time to time. She’s pregnant in one scene, has two boys in the next and is pregnant with an unnamed girl in the next. At times you think maybe a scene is missing from the film.

We get hints of the Von Erichs’ popularity but without much explanation for the newcomer, this is all fiction.

There are many historical flips and flops in this movie. A video plays where then-President Jimmy Carter announces the 1980 boycott of the Moscow Olympics, where Kerry Von Erich, who was barely referenced to this point, was supposed to compete in the discus. He walks home shortly thereafter and Fritz, who treats professional wrestling’s wins and losses as serious as can be, talks him into joining the family business. Kerry debuted in 1978.

There were two promos from then-National Wrestling Alliance Heavyweight champions. Harley Race here is described as an 8-time NWA Champion, but in the match against Kevin that’s the focus of the match at this juncture, was a 7-time title holder. Kevin Anton plays Race exceptionally. Once he removed his robe for the match, the 33-year-old actor physically resembles 1983’s 40-year-old Race (except Race was left-handed, Anton is not; thanks to Harley Race expert Shawn Blanchard for that faux pas).

That was also depicted to take place years earlier than it did.

The Iron Claw movie poster

The Iron Claw movie poster

Jeremy Allen White played Kerry Von Erich. In this movie, all the hair on the Von Erich boys looked terrible, but White’s made him look like a young Paul Reubens. Get that imagery out of your head. At 5-foot-7, the camera work didn’t convince anyone that White was the Texas Tornado. Kerry won the NWA championship in 1984, but this movie made it seem like he won the sought-after strap, went home, had a few beers and drove off on his ill-fated motorcycle ride. In reality, he lost his foot in a crash in 1986.

It’s missteps like that take that bug wrestling fans. That and Aaron Dean Eisenberg’s scattershot take on Ric Flair in a promo meant to book end the earlier clip from Race. In one sentence, Eisenberg sounds a little like Flair, while the next sounds like improv.

Much has been made of Maxwell Jacob Friedman’s blink and you miss it “cameo” as “cousin” Lance Von Erich. The rumor is MJF had a speaking role, and as a credited Executive Producer, you might think he would have had the pull to be included. In fact, the lay person has no clue what’s going on when he shows up.

The legacy of the Von Erich family could be a drawn-out Netflix series but is wrapped up here in two hours and 12 minutes. The time flies by as Durkin, in his third motion picture, tells a very complicated story. You empathize with Kevin. There are a lot of deaths here, even with the blatant omission of Chris, so you can be lured with thoughts of a “Von Erich Curse.”

The Iron Claw is a three-star film. Someone asked me which mass market movie I liked better, this or The Wrestler and I blurted, The Wrestler without much second thought, even after subsequent viewings I find that film dims greatly over time.

The Iron Claw debuts in theaters on Friday, December 22, 2023.

The Iron Claw (2023)

Tag Line: Sons. Brothers. Champions.
Directed By: Sean Durkin
Written By: Sean Durkin
Cast: Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White, Harris Dickinson, Holt McCallany
Runtime: 2 hours and 12 minutes