Circle of Iron (US - DVD R1)
Gabe Powers has a fun time with David Carradine, despite the über-cheese...
Cord the Seeker, a powerful but arrogant martial artist, competes for the right to quest for the Book of All Knowledge held by a wizard named Zetan. He loses due to his violent nature, but follows the winner along the path anyway. Along the way, he meets strange tests and challenges by enemies and allies. When the tournament winner is killed during the first test, Cord takes over the quest.
I come to Circle of Iron just as blind as David Carradine's character. I knew nothing of the film besides the little bit referenced in Kill Bill Volume Two. I hadn't even heard of the film until I found Blue Underground's initial DVD release sitting on a shelf in the Martial Arts section of my local video store. I know; I'm an awful B-Film fan.
Anyway, I didn't know exactly what to expect from a story written by Bruce Lee, James Coburn, and the writer of the Stallone arm wrestling epic Over the Top (and rewritten by one of the writers of the under appreciated Peter Sellers masterpiece The Mouse that Roared), but I really should have. Lee fans have always despised this brand posthumous work, and often called it bastardizations. As a fan of the man, but not so much his films (when it comes to kung fu action I'm more of a modern man), I'm thinking that the bastardization of Lee and Coburn's original script may be what gives Circle of Iron it's fascinatingly cheesy and dated charm.
The finished film is half way between the meaningful, but still sappy brand of 'Zen Buddhism' that Lee taught, and the insane, everything and the kitchen sink kind of martial arts films the United States put out after Lee's death. It's the kind of movie that anticipated fighting video games, but also the after shadow of the kind of insistently pointed films made at the end of the '60s. The film is almost an unintentional (intentional?) parody of Confucianism and Taoism. It's even sub-Yoda at some points, but it's continuously charming, and even intentionally funny at several points.
Circle of Iron is not for the impatient, and those expecting an Enter the Dragon styled actioneer will probably be disappointed. This is an entertaining film, but on a very strange scale. The storyline wafts around, entirely unfocused, concerned with solitary scenes rather than a cohesive whole. The film's universe is slightly fantastic, and the mix of time periods and styles recalls super weirdo Alejandro Jodorowsky, had he ever directed a kung fu flick. The filmmaking is just as experimental, dated, and bizarre as the script, and I mean that in the best possible way. Director Richard Moore hadn't and didn't direct another film ever, he was a cinematographer, and his gifts are obvious.
Really they don't make movies like this anymore, and that is the sole reason to see Circle of Iron. That and the cast, which besides the always dependable David Carradine, includes cameos from B-Movie elite like Christopher Lee, Eli Wallach, and Roddy McDowell. I've been a Carradine fan since I first saw Q the Winged Serpent and Death Race 2000, so his bravado turn in Kill Bill Volume Two was just the icing on the cake. I never watched Kung Fu, which was the thing that seems to have made Lee's more unfair fans really hate the man, so besides a few seconds of fisticuffs with Uma and some late night exercise programs I've always thought of him as a great and underappreciated actor rather than an action star. Here he does not disappoint in any of his four roles. Our lead, Jeff Cooper, is pretty flat, but his detached performance is oddly appropriate.
Oh my God, can this really be a 1.66:1 widescreen transfer that is appropriately framed in anamorphic mode on my television? I was beginning to assume that my television was defective. Sweet. I have no frame of reference, but I can't imagine Circle of Iron looking any better than it does here. Colours are bright, well represented, and only rarely bleed. I noticed little compression noise, and film grain is incredibly minimal for an older film. Blue Underground is always a solid production house, but here I'm at a loss for honest complaints. Black levels are occasionally inconsistent, but that's about it.
Remixing Mono tracks into 5.1 is often an awkward affair, and often I'm against it, but here it's reasonably successful. I listened mostly to the DTS track (though I don't have full 6.1 capabilities on my system), which is crisp and well centred. The occasional surround cue is effective without bleeding into other channels, but without sounding artificial, which is very rare. The LFE track is also booming. Those that still don't trust Blue Underground's remix have a pristinely cleaned mono track to listen to.
Disc one houses the director’s commentary and the trailers. The commentary is kind of misnamed, as it’s more of an interview. A moderator keeps director Richard Moore on task and it is a decent interview, especially considering how long it is. This kid of forced focus could have really helped some of the less impressive single member tracks I've heard in my life.
The second disc features a collection of interviews, totally about an hour and forty minutes in time. These aren't your usual talking heads going on about one feature film; most of the interviews encompass careers and personal lives of the subjects, and are filled with archive footage and photos.
The first interview is with Carradine, who sticks most strictly to the film at hand, and whose interview is the shortest. Dave divulges a lot of behind the scenes information, though parts of it don't gel with things other interviewees say. He has a genuine love for the film, and even calls it his favourite among his resume.
The second interview is with co-producer Paul Maslansky, who's been around the Hollywood block more than a few times. I'm not very good at paying attention to producer names, so I was not familiar with the man. Turns out he's one of the guys behind Death Line (aka: Raw Meat), and Race with the Devil, and he directed Sugar Hill. His real claim to fame was Police Academy, but we can forgive him for that. Maslansky is a laid back fellow, and his story a fun one to behold.
Interview three features martial arts coordinator Joe Lewis. Lewis has quite an ego, but he's earned it. The guy's a bit of a martial arts phenom; even I remember him from the magazines I read in my childhood. Lewis is the guy who invented American kickboxing, and besides a staring role in the cult classic Jaguar Lives! and a handful of smaller roles, Hollywood wasn't really his bag. Speaking of bags, this guy bags on Carradine quite a bit. Lewis was brought in to tighten up the film's weak fight scenes, and Carradine took offence. You can almost hear the interviewer rubbing his hands together in delight as Lewis all but calls Carradine out for a fist fight.
The final interview is an audio interview with co-writer Stirling Silliphant (apparently that is his real name). The interview is old, and the audio quality damaged by both time and the fact that it seems the interview was recorded during a particularly loud cocktail party, but Silliphant is engaging, and the editors keep the Bruce Lee stills coming with enough vigour that the segment is entertaining. Silliphant actually manages to offer more insight to Lee's life an personality than Rob Cohen's 1993 film, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.
An audio interview with co-writer Stirling Silliphant, a featurette (Bruce Lee’s The Silent Flute: A History by Davis Miller & Klae Moore), a poster/still gallery, and the first draft of the script are accessible via DVD-ROM.
Circle of Iron isn't going to please too many martial arts or Bruce Lee fans, but fans of Carradine and those that enjoy watching admirable failures. The film is profusely charming despite its lofty and pretentious stance on spirituality and life, the look is sharp and colourful, and Carradine is on target the entire film, as are the fantastic bit players. The DVD is informative and entertaining, with outstanding A/V considering the source material. Circle of Iron come highly recommended to those who know what they're getting into.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 29th May 2007
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: DTS 6.1 ES English, Dolby Digital 5.1 EX English, Dolby Digital Mono English
Extras: Director Commentary, Interviews, Text Essay, Trailers, Still Galleries, Original Script (DVDROM)
Easter Egg: No
Director: Richard Moore
Cast: David Carradine, Jeff Cooper, Christopher Lee, Eli Wallach, and Roddy McDowell
Genre: Action, Adventure and Fantasy
Length: 102 minutes
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