Film Talk: Zac on attack as wrestling royal in The Iron Claw
The physical state of this guy is insane – and I mean that in a good way.
Admittedly, Zac Efron had shredded himself up something chronic for Baywatch, but what he’s done for his latest outing is just nuts.
Directed by Sean Durkin, The Iron Claw puts Efron front and centre as the prodigal son in a family of wrestling royalty. A sports biopic that has been hotly anticipated, this one is based on the emotional real-life story of the Von Erich family, and our boy Zac has chiselled and bulked himself to perfection to capture the physicality of world heavyweight hopeful, Kevin.
He isn’t alone in the ring of course, with Harris Dickinson, Stanley Simons, and Shameless US and The Bear’s Jeremy Allen White starring as his band of brothers, each under the heavy influence of their father’s ambition.
The pantheon of wrestling movies sired over the last few decades is a mixed bag, with flicks such as Stallone’s Paradise Alley (1978) having divided critics, while Mickey Rourke’s 2008 performance in The Wrestler still holds universal acclaim. More recently, 2019 forged two of the best wrestling films ever made, in the form of The Peanut Butter Falcon, and Fighting With My Family. Durkin is no doubt hopeful that his telling of the Von Erich tale will eclipse all of the above, but it’s going to take more than Efron’s bulging biceps and washboard abs to rob Rourke of his well-earned world title belt.
Still, ‘The Zac Attack’ is more than rippling pectorals and pearly whites – this is a man who can act, and not for nothing has he been able to spend a career working alongside the best in the business.
So does The Iron Claw have what it takes to put The Wrestler on the ropes? Let’s take a look...
THE IRON CLAW (UK 15/ROI 15A, 132 mins)
Released: February 9 (UK & Ireland)
In April 2009, the Von Erichs were inducted into the upper echelon of professional wrestling, the WWE Hall of Fame, in the family’s home state of Texas.
The only surviving member of the sport’s second generation, Kevin Von Erich, proudly accepted the award and in his speech, he alluded to the deaths of his father and brothers, attributed in some superstitious circles to a family curse.
During the 1960s, patriarch Fritz Von Erich popularised a signature move called the iron claw which involved placing his hand over an opponent’s face and squeezing until they submitted.
He passed the mantle and claw-handed move to five boys, Kevin, David, Kerry, Mike and Chris.
Writer-director Sean Durkin’s respectful and moving biopic excises youngest son Chris but still wallows in the tragedy that stalked the Von Erichs outside of the wrestling rings where they performed solo or as crowd-pleasing winners of the World Six-Man Tag Team Championship.
A transformative lead performance from Zac Efron, who bulks up convincingly to portray Kevin, is the beating heart of the film.
He balances raw emotion with imposing muscularity and is breathlessly convincing in physically demanding brawls that dissipate tension from the familial strife.
Professional wrestler Chavo Guerrero, who appears briefly on screen, acted as consultant for these intense sequences.
Fritz (Holt McCallany) instils in his boys, from an early age, a requirement to be “the toughest, the strongest, the most successful – the absolute best”.
The father is determined to train his sons Kevin (Zac Efron), Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), David (Harris Dickinson) and Mike (Stanley Simons) to each claim the world heavyweight title.
The brothers are reunited after President Jimmy Carter decrees the US Olympic team will boycott the 1980 summer games in Moscow and discus thrower Kerry returns home to the family fold.
As eldest child, Kevin is first in line to realise Fritz’s dream but the sensitive scion fears his old man’s iron-fisted insistence on perfection will cause the family to buckle.
Kevin’s unconcerned mother Doris (Maura Tierney) swats away meaningful discussion of the matter.
Long-standing rivalry with a trio of preening peacocks known as The Fabulous Freebirds propels the Von Erichs into the spotlight and Kevin finds his soulmate and greatest supporter in girlfriend Pam (Lily James).
The Iron Claw grapples with emotionally wrought subject matter and piledrives scenes of fraternal angst and reconciliation.
Durkin revels in the theatricality of the sport before WWE applied a high-sheen gloss.
“Isn’t it all just fake?… sorry, prearranged, written?” asks Pam.
The Von Erichs’ heartbreaking true story is richer than Durkin can shoehorn into 132 minutes and the script bypasses the meat and gristle of the siblings’ mental wellbeing.
THE JUNGLE BUNCH WORLD TOUR (UK U/ROI G, 89 mins)
Released: February 9 (UK & Ireland)
Water typically irrigates the great circle of life that connects our sprawling concrete jungles to dwindling animal kingdoms filled with beauty and wonder.
In The Jungle Bunch World Tour, droplets of water have the potential to destroy swathes of precious African habitat unless a team of plucky critters can unite in the face of ecological disaster (perpetrated by a Machiavellian beaver).
It has been a lukewarm minute – approximately six and a half years – since an English language dubbed version of jaunty computer-animated adventure The Jungle Bunch misplaced its roar in UK cinemas.
A belated sequel with three directors at the helm, Laurent Bru, Yannick Moulin and Benoit Somville, possesses a simplistic, naive charm that may enthral young audiences who appreciate the laboured storytelling, perfectly illustrated by one character unnecessarily interjecting “OK, let’s recap…” to neatly summarise the film’s episodic plot.
Returning scriptwriters David Alaux, Eric Tosti and Jean-Francois Tosti choose the path of least resistance when it comes to character development, gift-wrapping a central romance in one quick, painless conversation.
They indulge a plaintive pop culture reference when the anthropomorphic champions face a robotic black and white bear programmed with martial arts moves.
“Two can play kung fu, panda!” meekly quips a feathered hero. The Jungle Bunch World Tour lacks the self-confessed awesomeness of that rival franchise.
Maurice the tiger penguin (voiced by Scott Humphrey) continues to lead the next generation of jungle protectors comprising Junior the tiger fish (David Vincent), Gilbert the tarsier (Wyatt Bowen), Batricia the bat (Dawn Ford), Miguel the gorilla (Mark Camacho) and the toads Al (Arthur Holden) and Bob (Marcel Jeannin).
The Champs’ mission statement is simple: “To come to the aid of any animal that needs it and create peace and harmony in the jungle.”
Capitalist beaver Henry (Camacho again) enslaves fellow rodents through hypnosis and assembles an airborne army to spray a volatile pink chemical over the lush ecosystem.
If water mixes with the substance, it produces a violent, exothermic reaction.
Vegetation will be reduced to ash.
With one month until rainy season, Maurice leads The Champs on a daredevil mission to locate the toxin’s creator, Albert the armadillo (Richard Dumont), in the hope he can engineer an antidote.
The group recruits Albert’s adventurous daughter Camelia (Holly Gauthier-Frankel), who sparks potential romance with Maurice.
Meanwhile, villain Henry dispatches hench-creatures Youri the vulture and Serguei the capuchin monkey (both Terrence Scammel) to sabotage The Champs’ globetrotting endeavours. The Jungle Bunch World Tour is a sweetly inoffensive jaunt that improves slightly on the original with greater visual sophistication to warrant a stampede on the big screen.
OCCUPIED CITY (UK 12A/ROI 12A, 266 mins)
Released: February 9 (UK & Ireland, selected cinemas)
Oscar-winning filmmaker Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave) came to the fore as a Turner Prize-winning visual artist before he answered the clarion call of the big screen.
In his latest picture, McQueen harks back to his artistic roots for a documentary feature narrated by Melanie Hyams with a running time close to four and a half hours including a 15-minute intermission.
He draws inspiration from Bianca Stigter’s book Atlas Of An Occupied City: Amsterdam 1940-1945 to contrast life in the city under Nazi occupation and more recently during the Covid pandemic.
Archive footage and interviews share harrowing accounts of Jewish persecution and resistance in the shadow of conflict, drawing parallels between the past and an uncertain present.
TURNING RED (UK PG/ROI PG, 96 mins)
Released: February 9 (UK & Ireland, selected cinemas)
The hugely entertaining computer-animated fantasy directed and written by Domee Shi and co-written by Julia Cho originally bypassed cinemas to debut on the Disney+ streaming platform in March 2022.
Better late than never, Turning Red casts a spell on the big screen.
Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse and Hyein Park lend their voices.