On Saturday afternoon I invited one of my personal social justice warriors (aka Middle Child) to the Cineplex for a testosterone shower. I’d read somewhere that The Iron Claw was useful to debunk toxic masculinity, or something equally woke. We simply had to see for ourselves whether it was true. It wasn’t, but we had a great time anyway.
Middle Child did some martial arts as a kid, reaching brown-black belt (that’s one below black in the kids’ program where we used to train). Me, I have a third-degree black belt, competed in point fighting and won several championships including Canadian nationals (twice), Scottish nationals (once) and world championships (twice). I retired from competition in 2018 but continue to train in kickboxing six days a week when I’m not traveling.
I never did any wrestling — I’m too claustrophobic for the greco-roman style and while I’m a decent enough showboat I don’t like the theatrics of American wrestling.
I don’t mind that it’s staged. Unless you have learned to fall — hard — and get up quickly to keep fighting, you shouldn’t comment too casually on how easy this looks. Being so skillful that you can hit someone full force without actually hurting them takes years of dedicated practice. I don’t for one second scoff at those showy antics. There is way too much athleticism, agility and sheer theatrical talent for that. And that’s to say nothing of the discipline required to build your body to where you need it to be, and maintain it there over years of very hard physical work.
The film gives us a great taste of that, one that might be a little intense at time for the uninitiated. Even Middle Child, despite their training and exposure to such things, was a touch put off by some of the more extreme scenes. Let’s just say there’s a lot of grunting in that two hours and 12 minutes, and sweat all over everything.
The movie is based on true events, and is sort of a biopic but having since read a little bit on the Von Erich family it’s clear they’ve taken a lot of liberties with the story. I’d be curious to hear the opinion of true wrestling fans, of course. But for my money it’s a surprisingly good story very well told.
I especially appreciated how lovingly the movie is filmed. Including that the wrestling matches were filmed live in front of audiences (all extras, but still) instead of short sequences edited together in post. And it shows. You have the impression of being there — movie magic at its best.
It’s obvious the director of photography and director appreciate the sport and the athletes who perform it. We see the grity side of the business and almost none of the sleaze. You could call this a love story. Just one with a great deal of muscle and some shit-talking in it.
A central character in the plot is what was believed to be the “curse” afflicting this family and leading to the death of all but one son — Kevin, played by an extraordinary Zac Efron, about whom a little more below. To Middle Child and I it was very clear, not even 45 minutes into the film, that the curse was the father himself, his pride and refusal to listen to anyone about anything ever. A pro wrestler himself, he believed he’d been robbed of a coveted world title and pushed everyone in his family to be the strongest, toughest and most successful they could be.
The film’s greatest weakness is the puzzling decision to leave the wife/mother mostly untouched as a contributing factor to the family’s losses. Clearly this man, the terrorizing and ruthlessly pitiless father, could not have been this harsh on his kids without his wife’s approval. All we know is that she believed religion would save everyone and otherwise left the men to deal with things. I have a lot of trouble believing that was the true story.
Yes, to a point, she too was a victim. He was controlling and not just a little. But — without inserting spoilers — in the movie she is clearly OK enough with what he’s doing yet this isn’t exploited at all as an arc in the overall story. Not even as a subplot. It should have been because here’s a very unpleasant truth about toxic masculinity: some women contribute a great deal to it.
And then there’s Zac.
You may remember Efron from High School Musical — not exactly Muscle Central. While healthy and fit, the actor had to train, train and train to get in the shape he needed to be to play Kevin. And wow, what a transformation. It took many months of gruelling work and then doing the fight stuff in the ring was a process, too. GQ (of course) ran a long piece detailing the steps you’d have to take if you really wanted to transform yourself that way, too.
I went into that movie expecting to work up a political rant and instead I got lost in a well-told story of love, family, grit, loss and too much pride. Worth seeing.