Thursday 8 February 2024

The Iron Claw (Sean Durkin, 2023)

In the years since his 2011 directorial feature debut, the impressive and decidedly Haneke-esque Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sean Durkin has directed just one other feature film—2020's The Nest—prior to his latest effort, the biographical The Iron Claw.  In between his first and second movies, Durkin made the superb miniseries Southcliffe, a harrowing four-parter centring on a spree shooter played by a particularly terrifying Sean Harris.  The Tony Grisoni-penned Southcliffe may well be Durkin's finest achievement, and just last year he returned to the small screen to direct half of the episodes of another acclaimed miniseries: Dead Ringers, a remake/reboot of David Cronenberg's 1988 film of the same name.  Durkin has also produced other directors' films, notably those of Antonio Campos (Afterschool, Simon Killer, Christine) and Nicolas Pesce (The Eyes of My Mother, Piercing).   

The largely 80s-set The Iron Claw charts the travails of a Texan family of professional wrestlers ruled by a fist of, er, iron belonging to patriarch Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany), who is at the tail end of a solid career in World Class Championship Wrestling (WCWW).  As Fritz's time in the ring draws to a close, he's keen for his offspring—he and his wife Doris (Maura Tierney) are parents to half a dozen boys—to tag in.  When the couple's firstborn, Jack (Romeo Miloro Newcomer), dies in a freak accident at the age of six, the protective Kevin (Zac Efron) becomes the eldest of five, and as teenagers he and his brothers are pushed towards wrestling careers, irrespective of the varying levels of enthusiasm among the siblings.  Under the domineering Fritz's harsh guidance, the boys achieve a great deal on the wrestling circuit, with middle son Kerry (Jeremy Allen White) becoming the most successful of the brothers.  Sadly, the numerous titles won by the Von Erichs are more than offset by a series of family tragedies.

If The Iron Claw wasn't based on a true story, most would dismiss its plot developments as implausible, but the horrifying truth is that 
at the age of just 35, Kevin was the last surviving son.
  By this stage, Kevin and his wife Pam (Lily James, excellent) had started a family of their own, and the new father was understandably so concerned about the Von Erich line being cursed that he opted to give his first child the real family surname of Adkisson (Von Erich was only ever a ring name).  The physically transformed Efron is outstanding as Kevin, a kind, polite and sensitive man outside of the sport, yet one who poses a formidable opponent to the parade of de facto villains he faces in the squared circle.  Refreshingly, Durkin has opted to film each of the wrestling matches in one long take, and the results are convincingly unconvincing; as is so often the case with the cartoon world of wrestling, the question of authenticity remains unresolved.

Given his CV, Durkin seems an unlikely candidate to helm a wrassling movie—but many of us thought much the same when Darren Aronofsky announced he would be making The Wrestler.  Like Aronofsky's wonderfully bleak tale, The Iron Claw is a wrestling film that packs an existential wallop; that this punishing picture is backed by so-hip-it-hurts indie studio A24 (Midsommar, Uncut Gems, Moonlight) tells you it is likely to be anything but a rote sports drama, and Sean Durkin proves a good fit for a story in which the next misfortune is never very far away.  That said, the writer-director does know when to exercise some restraint, as evidenced by the omission of youngest brother Chris Von Erich—who committed suicide in 1991—from the film; even as it stands, the litany of agony presented in The Iron Claw comes perilously close to having a numbing effect.  Yet the coda is suitably moving, and for the most part Durkin's engaging film possesses a warmth that was all but absent from his previous work.

Darren Arnold

Images: A24

Friday 2 February 2024

One More Shot (James Nunn, 2024)

Having had its Dutch premiere at the Pathé de Kuip as part of International Film Festival Rotterdam on Sunday, James Nunn's One More Shot has its fifth and final IFFR outing tonight, when it screens at the city's Pathé Schouwburgplein.  One More Shot is playing as part of the festival's Limelight strand, where it takes its place alongside the likes of Jonathan Glazer's The Zone of Interest, Kaouther Ben Hania's Four Daughters and Sean Durkin's The Iron Claw; while Nunn's film may pale in comparison with these acclaimed titles, it's a serviceable action movie which deserves better than its straight-to-video fate.  With this in mind, One More Shot's Rotterdam screenings afford a rare chance to see the film in a cinema, and it's safe to say that far worse films will be granted a theatrical release between now and the end of the year.  While the movie's absence from multiplexes will prove disappointing for its cast and crew, it's easy to imagine One More Shot enjoying a long life on the small screen.

One More Shot is a direct sequel to James Nunn's 2021 feature One Shot—in between these ventures, the filmmaker helmed creature feature Shark Bait—and both films are novel in that each appears to have been filmed in a single continuous shot.  As such, the films' titles are quite witty, although it should be pointed out that considerably more than one gunshot is fired in each film.  One More Shot joins its predecessor and the likes of Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman and Sam Mendes' 1917 in a select group of movies that have been edited to look as if they were filmed in one take, even if such efforts might have to defer to those films that are bona fide one-shot features—such as Russian Ark, Victoria and Medusa DeluxeOne More Shot reunites Nunn with the first film's star, Scott Adkins, who came to the project fresh from his memorable turn in last year's epic John Wick: Chapter 4—a film that featured a jaw-dropping single-take fight sequence as it set about redefining the modern action flick.

Here, Adkins reprises his role as crack Navy SEAL Jake Harris, who in the first film was in the thick of it as his squad attempted to transport Amin Mansur (Waleed Elgadi) from a CIA black site.  Mansur had been detained on account of his involvement in a plot to launch a terror strike on Washington DC, and One More Shot opens with the prisoner and Harris arriving in the US as the clock ticks down to the attack.  The American authorities have brought along Mansur's heavily pregnant wife Niesha (Meena Rayann) as leverage, but before the CIA can begin interrogating their man, an army of mercenaries led by Robert Jackson (Michael Jai White) storms the airport in an attempt to retrieve Mansur.  Harris, who has only just had his part in this fraught business ended by Tom Berenger's apoplectic CIA officer, soon realises what's going on and sets about dispatching countless henchmen via a variety of brutal methods—although, more often than not, a gun is involved.  

The one-shot film is something of a curio: it can be hard to reconcile the impressiveness of the achievement with the notion that it's not much more than a technical exercise.  Here, though, there's a real-time urgency to the film, and the kinetic presentation manages to maintain interest in what is essentially a glorified video game (as indeed was the aforementioned 1917).  Adkins—in the sort of role usually reserved for the likes of Jason Statham—is good value as Harris; disappointingly, White is given precious little to do up until his (admittedly impressive) big fight scene with Adkins—both actors have a background in martial arts, which lends a satisfying authenticity to the face-off.  The rest of the acting is pretty variable, with Berenger phoning it in and Gemma Arterton's less-famous sister Hannah struggling to make much of an impact as a brusque CIA agent.  But One More Shot is all about the spectacle, and Nunn, working with a relatively low budget, has crafted a likeable, competent and generally entertaining action thriller.

Darren Arnold