Blue Underground // 1978 // 97 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // July 17th, 2009
The Adventure Epic Written by Bruce Lee -- His Dream Project He Never Lived to See!
I grew up watching Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, and I always thought that David Carradine was pretty cool. I knew enough about martial arts to know he wasn't doing anything particularly impressive on the show, but he always exuded an amazing calm that I found reassuring. Probably because of my enjoyment of Kung Fu I never really sought out his other films. Sure, I've seen Death Race 2000 and the Kill Bill films, but Circle of Iron (Blu-ray) was my first exposure to the film, and I can't say I'm disappointed.
Circle of Iron (originally known as The Silent Flute) was a story concept created by Bruce Lee, James Coburn, and screenwriter Stirling Silliphant. Lee hoped to bring his Zen philosohpy to the masses disguised as a kung fu movie. His death made that a difficult proposition, but Circle of Iron was made anyway, with David Carradine (who, incidently, took Lee's spot in the original Kung Fu). The film tells the story of Cord (Jeff Cooper, Duel at Diablo), a fighter who seeks Zetan, a mysterious keeper of a book of enlightenment. Although he belongs to no school and fights only for himself, Cord seeks the book. Along the way he meets up with a mentor, a blind man who wields a flute (played by David Carradine). On his journey to Zetan, Cord will have to face numerous obstacles (almost all of whom are played by David Carradine).
Circle of Iron is probably most disappointing as a martial arts film. Although all the actors appear to have the chops, the choreography and editing just aren't up to snuff. There's no immediacy to the fights, and it looks much closer to professional wrestling of the era than it does to contemporary martial arts films. I'm not looking for Jet Li or Jackie Chan, but I honestly enjoyed all the non-fight scenes more.
Bruce Lee's intention with Circle of Iron was to bring Zen to the masses, and glimmers of that hope made it to the screen. Cord's claim to belong to "no school" mimics Lee's own belief that martial-arts magpieism was the best way to learning, taking the best from numerous schools to form Jeet Kun Do. Of course in addition to the "real" stuff we get the usual hokey zen riddles that martial arts flicks love to pawn off on audiences. Some of them are actually useful in getting Cord to open his eyes and experience the world around him, while others seem designed simply to be bizarre. I don't think it'll be bringing Zen to anyone, but students of the philosophy might have fun teasing out the various strains in the flick.
I haven't seen that many chop-socky flicks, but I've seen enough to know that Circle of Iron is pretty bizarre, even by the lax standards of the kung fu film. In fact, that's the primary reason to watch the film. Where else are you going to see a Beastmaster look-alike, David Carradine in a monkey suit, and Eli Wallach in a pot trying to boil off his penis? To top it all off you've got Christopher Lee as Zetan. If that's not a recipe for Friday night with the intoxicant of your choice, I don't know what is. I'm sure any number of enterprising young people could come up with numerous drinking games for Carradine's costume changes alone.
This Blu-ray disc appears to be a port of the previous special edition DVD from Blue Underground. For a thirty-year-old low-budget martial arts film, Circle of Iron looks pretty good. The print is in okay shape, and there are a few scenes with very impressive detail. However, much of the film tends to look a bit soft, although I liked the filmlike quality of the transfer. Considering the mono origin of the film's soundtrack, it's amazing that there are two different 7.1 lossless surround mixes on this disc. They're not going to blow anyone's socks off, but the audio keeps the dialogue clear and the martial arts effects audible.
Extras include three interviews, with the director, the producer, and the screenwriter. All three spend more of their time discussing things other than Circle of Iron, but all three have had interesting enough careers to make their stories worth hearing. We also get a commentary from director Richard Moore as he dishes out more production information and talks about his transition from cinematographer to director.
If you're a fan of bizarre '70s cinema, then Circle of Iron is the film for you. Fans of martial arts films should give this one at least a rental, even if the fighting isn't that great. Fans only familiar with Carradine's later work might want to avoid this disc. I don't see much of a reason to upgrade for those with the previous Blue Underground DVD; the audio and video are improved, but they still aren't stellar so you're probably better off with your old disc.
Like a bird with four wings, Circle of Iron is not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2009 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Rated R