Why ‘The Iron Claw’ Gets Pinned by Its Potential

Zac Efron looks the part, but he can't elevate the haunting details outside the ring

The tragic tale of the Von Erich wrestling dynasty would make an impressive feature.

Tragedy. Resilience. Pain. Redemption.

Writer/director Sean Durkin, who delivered the mesmerizing “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” seemed perfectly suited to the task at hand.

His film, “The Iron Claw,” somehow whiffs on material perfectly suited for Oscar consideration. Yes, it’s handsomely presented with all the awards season bells and whistles. What’s missing? A script that digs beneath the harrowing surface.

The Iron Claw | Official Trailer HD | A24

A beefed-up Zac Efron plays Kevin Von Erich, son of a professional wrestler renowned for his “Iron Claw” attack. Kevin is a hit on the Texas wrestling circuit, and he’s about to have company. His brothers also wrestle, including Kerry Von Erich (Jeremy Allen White of “The Bear” fame) who dreams of representing his country in the upcoming Olympic Games.

Their wrestling careers go smoothly at first, with Durkin’s screenplay capturing their ascent with little nuance or grit. Yes, Papa Von Erick (Holt McCallany) is old-school to the bone, although Durkin resists any cheap “toxic masculinity” tirades.

Young Kevin craves the championship belt above all.

We’re deep into the story when the first tragedy strikes, pummeling the tight-knit family. The body blows have only begun.

It’s all surface-level anguish, story beats that sound compelling on paper but never distinguish themselves on screen. Was Durkin too emotionally tied to the real Von Erich saga to bring what the story desperately needed?

Efron certainly looks like a professional wrestler, his body fat M.I.A. and his tanned physique ring-worthy. He’s just not the kind of actor who can bring depth to a character like Kevin. His face lacks the subtle shadings that his peers bring to projects like this.

Efron captures the pain, and the resolute spirit, of his character without adding anything extra.

The rest of the extended Von Erich clan is similarly shorted. Poor Lily James offers a spark as Kevin’s future bride during their meet-cute introduction. She seeks him out after a wrestling match, gently coaxing him to ask her on a date.

It’s a rare moment that feels unrehearsed.

The Iron Claw | Official First Look | A24

Sports movies often use the “big game” as emotional rocket fuel. Consider any “Rocky” installment for proof. It’s easy, effective and can frame character arcs in ways that even the best writing struggles to pull off.

“The Iron Claw” leans on its wrestling sequences, hard, to accentuate turning points in the characters’ lives. Except it’s all a fraud, a faux sport with pre-arranged resolutions.

It’s professional wrestling. ’nuff said.

Why would anyone, let alone a talented storyteller like Durkin, rely on the sport to push this story along?

The film wraps on dueling notes. A key character bemoans the collective tragedies that struck the family only to bounce back, on a dime, and rejoin a family gathering.

It’s a perfect metaphor for a film with tragedy built into its DNA without the nuance to explore what it all meant.

HiT or Miss: “The Iron Claw” may delight wrestling fans who lived through the story’s real-life beats. Everyone else will wonder why the heartbreak produced such a mundane biopic.

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