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The Iron Claw review: The Big Daddy of wrestling movies – You’ll be floored by this tale of four sons grappling with the ambitions of a demanding father, writes BRIAN VINER

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The Iron Claw (15, 132 mins)

Rating:

Of all the American families whose fame crossed the Atlantic — those Kennedys, Kardashians, Osmonds, Partridges — not many of us would think to include the Von Erichs, a wrestling dynasty from Texas.

But don’t let that put you off seeing The Iron Claw, a compelling biographical film which presents their story as an intoxicating cocktail of one part triumph to four parts tragedy.

Set mostly in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it focuses on Kevin Von Erich, in which role Zac Efron gives the performance of his career. The pretty boy of the High School Musical trilogy and other frothy comedies has become a really substantial dramatic actor.

From left: The Iron Claw stars Harris Dickinson, Zac Efron, Stanley Simons, and Jeremy Allen White as the Von Erich siblings

From left: The Iron Claw stars Harris Dickinson, Zac Efron, Stanley Simons, and Jeremy Allen White as the Von Erich siblings

Lily James stars as Kevin¿s (Zac Efron) sweetheart Pam, later his wife, she is excellent, and as convincingly Texan as mesquite-smoked brisket

Lily James stars as Kevin’s (Zac Efron) sweetheart Pam, later his wife, she is excellent, and as convincingly Texan as mesquite-smoked brisket

In this particular instance the film is about the bonds of brotherhood, too, as well as toxic fatherhood

In this particular instance the film is about the bonds of brotherhood, too, as well as toxic fatherhood

Lily James keeps getting better, too. As Kevin’s sweetheart Pam, later his wife, she is excellent, and as convincingly Texan as mesquite-smoked brisket. I mustn’t say as tasty, although they would in the film. These are unreconstructed times. ‘You put that down, someone else’ll pick it up,’ Kevin’s father tells him approvingly, after meeting Pam.

Kevin is the oldest surviving son of Fritz (Holt McCallany) and Doris (Maura Tierney), whose firstborn died in boyhood. He has three younger brothers: David (Harris Dickinson), Kerry (Jeremy Allen White) and Mike (Stanley Simons). All of them have been raised in Fritz’s long shadow. Fritz is a former champion wrestler whose signature move was the eponymous ‘iron claw’, a kind of one-handed head vice. And his dearest wish, unambiguously expressed, is for all his boys to follow him into the ring.

One of them, Mike, isn’t as strong and sporty as the others. He prefers his guitar to wrestling, which is why Fritz proclaims him his least favourite. He doesn’t mind his sons knowing how he orders his favourites, indeed considers it an incentive to make him proud. ‘The rankings can always change,’ he tells them.

In the autocratic father department, Fritz makes his fellow cinematic ‘Von’, Christopher Plummer’s Captain Von Trapp, look like a bag of mush. And at least the Captain melted in The Sound Of Music. Fritz never does, even when his uncompromising demands on his sons lead, inexorably, to domestic calamity on an almost operatic scale.

There are plenty of very good wrestling scenes in The Iron Claw, although writer-director Sean Durkin never quite reveals the extent to which the bouts are choreographed in advance

There are plenty of very good wrestling scenes in The Iron Claw, although writer-director Sean Durkin never quite reveals the extent to which the bouts are choreographed in advance

Wonderfully acted across the board, The Iron Claw is a tremendous drama about one benighted family, but it also makes us think about our own clan dynamics. Picture shows Jeremy Allen White as Kerry

Wonderfully acted across the board, The Iron Claw is a tremendous drama about one benighted family, but it also makes us think about our own clan dynamics. Picture shows Jeremy Allen White as Kerry

Ahead of the premiere of the pro-wrestling biopic, 36-year-old Zac Efron got candid about the intense prep he put into preparing for the film and admitted he became 'obsessed'

Ahead of the premiere of the pro-wrestling biopic, 36-year-old Zac Efron got candid about the intense prep he put into preparing for the film and admitted he became ‘obsessed’

There are plenty of very good wrestling scenes in The Iron Claw, although writer-director Sean Durkin never quite reveals the extent to which the bouts are choreographed in advance, as those of us who grew up watching the likes of Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy on ITV on Saturday afternoons always knew they were.

In any case, like all the best sporting biopics such as Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), which in its early black-and-white scenes The Iron Claw rather evokes, this film is not so much about sport as character, drive, frailties and relationships — those things that make all of us tick.

In this particular instance it’s about the bonds of brotherhood, too, as well as toxic fatherhood. Kevin must stand aside as Fritz anoints first Dave as the likeliest world champion, then Kerry, who came late to wrestling after being forced to give up the discus, following the US boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.

It’s hard for him to suppress his own dreams while watching his brothers realise theirs, but Kevin is a pretty simple soul, in whom fraternal love burns even more strongly than personal ambition. All of which makes it truly heart-rending when, in ways that I shouldn’t disclose, tragedy strikes each of his siblings, giving substance to what Kevin understandably believes is a family curse.

Wonderfully acted across the board, The Iron Claw is a tremendous drama about one benighted family, but it also makes us think about our own clan dynamics. It did me, anyway. I wouldn’t even metaphorically pin you to the canvas before you agree to go and see it, but it’s as fine and worthwhile a film, in its way, as Foxcatcher (2014), another captivating story ostensibly about wrestling.

The Iron Claw is in cinemas now. 

Bob Marley: One Love (12A, 104 mins) 

Rating:

At precisely the time that the Von Erich boys were making their mark, so was the hero of Bob Marley: One Love. Reinaldo Marcus Green’s film is another biopic, but as such it is diminished in ways that make sense when the final credits reveal the names of the producers: the mighty reggae star’s son Ziggy Marley, daughter Cedella and widow Rita. 

Is this love? And worship, yes.

Reinaldo Marcus Green¿s film is another biopic but producers include the reggae star¿s son Ziggy Marley, daughter Cedella and widow Rita

Reinaldo Marcus Green’s film is another biopic but producers include the reggae star’s son Ziggy Marley, daughter Cedella and widow Rita

Kingsley Ben-Adir (left) is truly splendid in the title role, and gets strong support from Lashana Lynch as Rita (right)

Kingsley Ben-Adir (left) is truly splendid in the title role, and gets strong support from Lashana Lynch as Rita (right)

The film covers that fascinating period before Marley¿s famous One Love concert in Jamaica in 1978, when after surviving an assassination attempt he escaped the wild violence that was tearing his native island apart and holed up in London

The film covers that fascinating period before Marley’s famous One Love concert in Jamaica in 1978, when after surviving an assassination attempt he escaped the wild violence that was tearing his native island apart and holed up in London

The film covers that fascinating period before Marley’s famous One Love concert in Jamaica in 1978, when after surviving an assassination attempt he escaped the wild violence that was tearing his native island apart and holed up in London, where he and his band, the Wailers, recorded their masterly album, Exodus.

Kingsley Ben-Adir is truly splendid in the title role, and gets strong support from Lashana Lynch as Rita, although the British pair give such full vent to the couple’s Jamaican accents that subtitles wouldn’t be out of place.

There are some great moments, but every little thing is not alright. 

James Norton is surprisingly drippy as legendary record producer Chris Blackwell; and Marley fans, even those who accord him the same messianic status as the film does, should recognise it as hagiography.

There is no reference, for example, to the intense affair he conducted in London with the reigning Miss World, his fellow Jamaican Cindy Breakspeare. 

On the upside, however, the music is fabulous.

Bob Marley: One Love opens in cinemas Wednesday, Ferbruary 14.

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