The Iron Claw movie review: Zac Efron and co fail to pin down this tragic true-life wrestling story

Only fans of body-slamming, fist-pumping, shirt-ripping “sports” biopics are likely to relish this true story of the Von Erich wrestling family, as it’s told in such a basic way that anyone else will be screeching out for a sliver of nuance.

That said, the grim arrow of destiny for these brothers is so relentlessly tragic that even those devotees will probably be turned off by a lack of euphoric release. The real tragedy is that it’s such an extraordinary tale and it deserves to be told so much better.

The opening scene (only for that first minute, mind you) promises plenty as grainy, sweaty, black and white footage à la Scorsese’s Raging Bull zooms in on dad Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany) monstering the ring like a grisly pro.

But then it swiftly flips to dreamy late-Sixties colour as Fritz delivers a sentimentally earnest lecture to his young sons about how the family will stick together through the power of wrestling. The stage is set, with dad firmly in the director’s chair controlling his children’s ascent to global supremacy.

Much of the appeal might lie in watching muscled-up (the stars put on mountains of weight for the roles), half-naked beefcakes Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White and Harris Dickinson cavort around the ring as brothers Kevin, Kerry and David.

 (Eric Chakeen)
(Eric Chakeen)

And for the pedants who’ll always grumble that wrestling isn’t a real sport, an awkward scene is crowbarred in for Efron’s Kevin to explain the value of what he does.

However, the fateful, fatal fable being told here is that of the “Von Erich Curse”, a possibly self-prophesising myth stemming from the death of the family’s eldest brother at the age of six. Lord, you’ll hear a lot about that curse!

For weeks posters on London buses have been telling commuters that Efron gives “the performance of a lifetime”, but I found that “feeling” isn’t what oozes from the cinema screen. Zac does eventually manage to crack a tear towards the end, but the most emotive flourishes come from Lily James as Efron’s girlfriend.

The real villain here appears to be Fritz and the movie never really focuses on why he coerced his sons into oblivion, perhaps because the film-makers though the hotter, younger stars would be a better box-office draw.

What we get instead is a made-for-TV-style trudge through the brothers’ ever-increasing anguish and suffering. And the “iron claw” of the title, the family’s legendary signature wrestling move? That’s a bit lame too.

In cinemas from February 9

132 mins, cert 15