Circle of Iron (US - BD)
Gabe Powers rewatches one of David Carradine's weirdest on Blu-ray Disc
Reviewer Note: Besides a few grammatical corrections, this is the same review I wrote for the two disc DVD release.
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 on a technicality 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’s winner is killed during the first test, Cord takes over the quest.
Who knows exactly what to expect from an original story 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 underappreciated Peter Sellers masterpiece The Mouse that Roared)? Well I should have. Lee’s fans have uniformly despised this brand posthumous work for decades, calling such films bastardizations, and dismissing them outright. As a fan of the man, but not so much his films (except as forerunners to some of my favourites, of course), I'm thinking that this ‘bastardization’ of Lee and Coburn's original script may be what gives Circle of Iron it's fascinatingly cheesy, oddball charm.
The finished film sits about half way between the meaningful, but still sappy brand of 'Zen Buddhism' that Lee taught in life, and the daft, everything and the kitchen sink brand of martial arts films the United States put out after the master’s death. Like Lee’s unfinished Game of Death, Circle of Iron (aka The Silent Flute) anticipates fighting style video games, but also features the afterglow of the insistently pointed philosophical films of the late 1960s. On top of its ridiculous imagery, and shaky plotting, the film acts as an unintentional (or perhaps intentional?) parody of Confucianism and Taoism. It's even sub-Yoda at some points, but it's continuously charming and even intentionally funny on several occasions.
Circle of Iron is not for the impatient, and those expecting an Enter the Dragon styled actioner will probably be disappointed. It is an entertaining film, but on a very strange scale. The storyline wafts around, entirely unfocused, concerned with solitary scenes and interactions over 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 choices are just as experimental, dated, and bizarre as the script, and I mean this in the best possible way. Director Richard Moore hadn't and didn't direct another film ever, but he was a working cinematographer, and his visual gifts are quite clear.
Really they don't make movies like this anymore, and that is the major 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 personally 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 my cake. I never watched Kung Fu (it was off air by the time I was born, and I don’t spend a lot of energy on old TV), which was the ‘offense’ 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 pathetic late night exercise programs, I've thought of him as a great and underappreciated character actor rather than an action star. Here the snarky long-hair does not disappoint in any of his four roles. Our lead, Jeff Cooper (in a role that was apparently offered to Lee), is pretty flat, but his detached performance is oddly appropriate.
Coming of the last Blue Underground Blu-ray release, David Cronenberg’s Fast Company, I can’t help but be a little disappointed in this transfer. I think that companies like Blue Underground, which put effort into older and cheaper catalogue titles. Some films can only be taken so far into clarity. Circle of Iron is grainy in a slightly disconcerting manner, but the DVD’s minor compression noise has been mostly done away with. Left over noise is due to the film’s limitations, not digital compression. Details are occasionally fuzzy, and frankly not all that better than the DVD, but again, I don’t know exactly what else could be expected from the source material. There is some print damage during the sex scene, but overall things have been cleaned as far as I’m sure the negatives allowed. The only definitive upgrade here is found in the noticeably brighter and fuller colours. Circle of Iron is a sort of goofily colourful film, and the sort of goofy tones pop like corn. Check out the circus scenes at the centre of the film to experience the transfer at both its strongest and weakest. The colours are incredible, and the details occasionally life-like, yet the darker things get the less pure the blacks, and the more grain infiltrates the hues.
As I said in my review of Blue Underground’s second DVD release, remixed Mono tracks are often an awkward affair, but for the most part this release is the exception to the rule. This Blu-ray’s 7.1 DTS-HD and Dolby TrueHD tracks are a pretty close match to that previous release, but are generally a little crisper, and show off the mix’s more impressive feats. Carradine’s Blind Man flute fight, which comes pretty early in the film, is probably the best sampling of the remixed mono track’s capabilities. The bulk of the audio is clearly centred, but the flicker of the fire leaks warmly into the stereo channels, while the occasional twist of the weaponized flute in the wind makes for wispy directional effects in the rear channels. Other directional effects sometimes seem to come from the wrong side of the screen, but are deftly separated. The music is a bit tinny and flattened, and the budget row sound effects show their age, but all it all fans can’t go wrong with this one.
The ported special edition DVD extras begin with director Richard Moore’s commentary track. The word ‘commentary’ is kind of a misnomer, as this is more of a semi-scene specific interview. A moderator keeps director Richard Moore on task, and it’s decent as an interview, especially considering how long it is. This brand of forced focus could've done wonders for some of the less impressive single member tracks I've heard in my life.
The first interview is with Carradine, and is called ‘Playing the Silent Flute’ (14:00, SD). Carradine sticks most strictly to the film at hand, and his interview is the shortest overall. 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 (30:00, SD), 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 (31:00, SD). 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 starring 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, 23:00, SD). 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 and 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.
Blue Underground’s Blu-ray release comes at an unfortunate time for Carradine fans (though it’s intriguingly coincidental, is it not), but what better time to revisit one of the man’s stranger features? 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 should have a good enough time. The film is profusely charming despite its lofty and pretentious stance on spirituality and life, the look is sharp and colourful, and the fantastic bit players are consistently on target. The Blu-ray, which ports the extras from the previous special edition, is informative and entertaining, with good A/V considering the source material (though not a huge improvement over the DVD). Circle of Iron come highly recommended to those who know what they're getting into.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 16th May 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English, Dolby TrueHD 5.1, English, Dolby Digital EX English
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
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 and Adventure
Length: 97 minutes
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