The Iron Claw – Movie Review
When one thinks about the great families that have dominated professional wrestling, few can compare with The Von Erichs. Starting with the patriarch Fritz, his sons dutifully followed in his footsteps, with varying degrees of success. The arrival of Kevin, followed by David and Kerry set Fritz’s World Class Championship Wrestling on fire, especially when they began their legendary feud with The Fabulous Freebirds at the end of 1982.
But, for all the triumphs, there was a plentiful dose of tragedy. This is where the film shines, in showing the darkness, with some light still penetrating through.
Throughout his career, Fritz wanted nothing more than to become NWA World Heavyweight champion. It was unquestionably the most coveted prize in wrestling, with the champion having to travel around the country and the world to defend the gold against the top competitors of the day. Since he was never given that opportunity, and with his career winding down, Fritz devoted his career to his boys. It may be a fair assumption that it was similar to Joseph Kennedy’s dream to become United States president, and when that was not realised, he wanted a long line of his sons to take the mantle. Such as it was with Fritz wanting to build a dynasty of NWA World champions.
Kevin (Zack Efron) provides the light throughout the film. He is shown to be the most responsible of the brothers, as he is the eldest after Jack Jr, who died at the age of just five. He is also the first to get into the ring, followed by David, and then Kerry. With the ever present and domineering Fritz (played superbly by Holt McCallany) watching from the background, Kevin can’t quite get his hands on the World title. After being thrown to the outside onto the solid concrete floor during a match between Kevin and NWA World champion Harley Race (Kevin Anton), Kevin is injured and takes some time to get back into the ring. In the locker room after the match, Fritz chastises Kevin for taking too long to get up. “This is how they (the NWA) test us,” he explains.
By this point, David (Harris Dickinson) is in the mix, and cuts a scathing promo on Harley, calling him a coward when he intentionally gets himself disqualifed. The ability to speak on the microphone is an area where Kevin is shown to struggle, and Fritz picks up on this. After haranguing Kevin for his performance, he switches to praising David, who now takes the top spot in Fritz’s eyes. This would be a recurring theme throughout the film, as Kevin struggles in his relationship with his father.
To further burden Fritz’s mind, Kerry’s (Jeremy Allen White) Olympic dreams are shattered, when President Jimmy Carter announces on television that the United States would be boycotting the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Kerry was a prolific in the discus throw, and just like the NWA not giving a Von Erich a chance with the World title, Fritz sees this as another slap in the face. However, this does result in his favourite son – as Fritz explains at the dining table to his other sons the order of preference starting with Kerry – returning home, where he would also soon be drafted into the family business.
Unlike the other brothers, the film focuses on Kevin away from the ring. After the matches at The Sportatorium, he meets Pam (Lily James), who would become his future wife. On their first date, she asks what he wants more than anything, and Kevin states that it’s to become the World Heavyweight champion. But Pam is not a typical star-struck female and can see something deeper in Kevin. He also discusses the so-called family curse, but at this point it’s just a silly tale. As they talk, she realises that he is the brother who looks out for the family, and surmises that it’s because he’s the oldest. After Kevin explains that technically he’s the second oldest, and that Jack Jr passed away as a child, she embraces Kevin.
Another sibling is Mike (Stanley Simmons), who is smaller than the other three, and doesn’t show much interest in wrestling. Instead, he’s part of a band, which seems to be where he’d prefer to be. Not having the size and strength of his brothers, Fritz is especially hard on Mike, as they toil away on the family ranch lifting bales of hay and putting in fence-posts.
With the whole family together, Mike announces he has a late-night gig at a party but Doris (Maura Tierney) (or Dottie as the matriarch is affectionally called by Fritz) doesn’t allow it. Instead, the brothers and Pam support Mike by helping him out of the house and to the party, where they are happy to discover Mike’s skills as a guitarist and lead vocal. While Fritz may have played a vicious, Nazi heel for much of his career, once he took over the promotion and his boys began to get involved, The Von Erichs were portrayed as a wholesome, God-loving family. So it shouldn’t be any surprise to the audience when Kevin and Pam sneak out of the party and into their truck to consummate their relationship, where Kevin explains that he’s a virgin (or words to that effect).
The wedding of Kevin and Pam leads into the start of the tragedy, or curse, that derails the great Von Erichs. At the wedding reception, Kevin finds David in the bathroom, coughing up blood. As part of Fritz’s plan to make the NWA take notice, David is set to head off to Japan. A concerned Kevin advises David not to go, only for them both to laugh at the sheer insanity of thinking that Fritz would allow David to miss the tour. Kevin announces to David that he has a baby son on the way, which makes David very happy. Sadly, David passed away during the tour in his hotel room at the age of just 25. Fritz sits in a darkened room explaining to Kevin that David died of enteritis, an intestinal issue.
With David gone, Fritz takes a ‘show must go on’ mentality as they head into the first Parade of Champions at Texas Stadium. It’s down to Kevin and Kerry to take on Ric Flair for the NWA World Heavyweight title, and the two bicker about who is going to take David’s place. Fritz decides to toss a coin, and the winner is Kerry. Years of blood, sweat and tears are realised for Fritz, as Kerry goes on to beat Flair for the coveted World title. Unfortunately, that same night, Kerry goes on a motorcycle ride and has an accident, losing his right foot.
The pressure is now put on the reluctant Mike to fill the breech, with Kerry uncertain to ever return to the ring. Kevin puts him through his paces, but then during a tag team match, Mike injures his shoulder. In what should have been a routine surgery, Mike develops toxic shock syndrome, which almost kills him. When he manages to survive, an awkward press conference chaired by Kevin with Mike at his side takes place, where a brain-damaged Mike promises he will return soon. Now feeling that the strains of the curse have well and truly reared its ugly head, Kevin makes sure his baby’s last name is listed as Adkisson and not Von Erich, in an attempt to stop it affecting the next generation.
Kevin struggles to keep things afloat, both his career and that of the promotion, causing distance between him and his wife and baby son. The tension gets to Kevin when he has an opportunity to wrestle Ric Flair for the World title and instead snaps and shoves the referee, refusing to let go of The Iron Claw. Meanwhile, Jerry Jarrett makes an overture to purchase the now-struggling WCCW.
Kerry uses substances to get through the pain in an attempt get back to where he was before. But while Kevin manages to work through the strain, Mike, already at odds about being a professional wrestler, and unable now to play his guitar, takes a large dose of sleeping pills and is found on the family ranch under a tree, aged 23. Just prior to Mike committing suicide, he spoke to Doris about the pressure to “be David.”
Kerry continues to slide downwards, despite having a new woman in his life, and now working for the World Wrestling Federation, where he has become Intercontinental champion. Fritz again goads Kevin who listens in the background as Fritz commends Kerry on his new position in the WWF, while Kevin drives the business into the ground. He also expects that Kerry should go on to become World champion like his old tag team partner “Hellwig.” (This is a reference to The Ultimate Warrior, who passed through WCCW before he joined the WWF).
In an uncomfortable scene, Kerry gives Fritz an early Christmas gift – a Smith and Wesson pistol to add to his father’s gun collection. But when Fritz doesn’t want to fire it right away and have dinner with the family, Kerry becomes irate, but manages to calm down. Later, Kevin gets a late-night call from Kerry which scares him, as Kerry explains that the WWF are not going to renew his contract and that he can’t go on. Kevin calls Fritz to keep an eye on him, but in typical Fritz fashion, he tells Kevin it’s between him and Kerry to sort it out.
As expected, tragedy strikes again when Kevin goes to the ranch looking for Kerry. He hears a gunshot and quickly finds Kerry under a tree. At the age of 33, Kerry had shot himself with the very pistol he had given Fritz for Christmas. All of Kevin’s frustrations bubble to the surface when he confronts his father and almost strangles him for not having looked after Kerry. Kevin lays Kerry on the dining table and a dream sequence takes place of Kerry in a rowboat, leaving behind the coin that earned him a shot at the World title, and making his way to the shore to his brothers, including Jack Jr.
Kevin chooses to move on and devote himself to his wife and now two young sons. Kevin meets with Jerry Jarrett in the nosebleed seats of The Sportatorium to finalise the deal, as Jerry explains his meeting with Fritz, who tried to intimidate him into not buying the promotion. In a nice final scene, Kevin tears up watching his kids play and when they notice, Kevin explains that he’s upset about no longer having any brothers. His two young children then promise that they will be his brothers. Through it all, Kevin dealt with all the adversity and managed to come out the other side, still married to Pam and living with a large family on his own ranch.
The Verdict: Like many biographical films, there is going to be historical inaccuracies. So for example, Kerry did not have his motorcycle accident the very same night he beat Flair for the World Title. Kerry defeated Flair in 1984, and the accident occurred in 1986. The implication is that Kerry could no longer be the NWA champion due to the accident, when he actually dropped the title back to Flair a short time later in Japan. However, keeping in mind that this is a film ‘inspired’ or ‘based’ on real events and people, this kept the flow going and of course, illustrating the mounting issues the ‘curse’ was causing.
Apart from some timeline discrepancies, the big item that many people have pointed out that know the Von Erich story is the non-appearance of Chris Von Erich. In this film, Chris simply never existed. He was the youngest of the Von Erich brothers, and yet another to commit suicide at a young age (21), most likely due to the pressure to live up to the name (the same issue that afflicted Mike). Director and screen-writer Sean Durkin explained that, “it was one more tragedy that the film couldn’t really withstand.” Indeed, when I saw this in the cinema, I heard the gasps from others in the audience as each tragedy was shown. At one point, my wife turned to me and said, “this is intense.” Knowing the unfortunate story, I replied, “it gets worse.” So therefore, I can understand Durkin’s concerns. There may also have been a problem with it making the movie longer and not flowing as well.
The scenes showing the actors wrestling, whether it be Flair, Race or the Freebirds – and of course The Von Erichs – was very well choreographed short as they were, with Chavo Guerrero Jr serving as a consultant (while also getting a scene wrestling Kevin as The Sheik). The actors all looked like wrestlers in these scenes and the settings made it look as if you were really watching an episode of WCCW television (and trust me, I’ve seen my fair share). Dave Meltzer commented that not enough was done to really show how popular the Von Erichs were in their heyday, which could have been explored better in the film. There is some semblance of this, with the packed arenas and a scene in which Bill Mercer (Michael J. Harney) speaks with Fritz about a potentially big television deal on the table. However, I do agree with Meltzer’s opinion, as it looked like WCCW was a small regional promotion that had some following before the big WWF took over and made it big. WCCW was something that could have been national, and for a few years in the 1980s, the demand for the Von Erichs was unbelievable.
Part of the reason for pro wrestling’s popularity was it’s parade of unique characters, such as it was in the 1980s. This does present a challenge for anyone making a film with real-life wrestlers being portrayed by actors. Cazzey Louis Cereghino was passable as the very unique Bruiser Brody, as was Kevin Anton as Harley Race (minus the distinctive tattoo and right handed punches as opposed to left handed). Some leeway has to be given (thankfully they didn’t try to find someone to make a cameo as Andre the Giant), but Aaron Dean Heisenberg as Ric Flair did not come close to hitting the mark, both in look nor sound. For me, the best was Holt McCallany, who had Fritz perfectly down. I also thought Harris Dickinson looked and sounded quite a lot like David.
The theme of the Von Erich curse – which is apparently blamed on Fritz changing his name from Adkisson – strays away for the most part from the likely cause, namely drugs. Drugs were a major factor, a scourge that prematurely ended the lives of many wrestling stars of that era. The Von Erich boys were young and successful, in huge demand around the country and the world, and naturally fell into the pitfalls of substance abuse, regardless of their religious upbringing. Only Kerry is shown in the film to be struggling with drugs, but its fair to say all the boys indulged plentifully. Staying away from the drug issue as much as possible is likely the reason why the family would sign off on the project, but it is surely a huge reason for the horrific series of events that followed.
I highly recommend this film, but don’t go into this thinking it’s going to be a one hundred percent historically accurate film, as tends to be the case with biographies of this kind. There are many unique and interesting stories out there that could be explored for future wrestling films, and this may be the catalyst behind more screenwriters and producers looking into professional wrestling for concepts.