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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Circle of Iron (Blu-ray)
Circle of Iron (Blu-ray)
Blue Underground // R // May 19, 2009 // Region Free
List Price: $34.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted July 8, 2009 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
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P R I N T
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"You came to me to test yourself, and in losing, you have gained your victory -- for now, you are on the threshold of truth. That knowledge...that gift...which is what you really want from me: you have it now."

I'm guessing it went something like this:

Okay,
[click on the thumbnail to enlarge]
so we're sitting on a screenplay by Bruce Lee, James Coburn, and Academy-Award winner Stirling Silliphant. Oops. Bruce Lee decided he didn't want to star in it anymore, and it's kind of a moot point anyway what with the whole being dead thing. Oh, and James Coburn is out too, but...whatever. We can swap him out with this balding buddy of David Carradine's. Bruce Lee's script is kinda heavy, though...trying to weave his zen philosophy into the framework of a martial arts flick. Yeah, let's keep some of that in here. I mean, we've got the guy from Kung Fu, after all, and the master on that show was always saying stuff like "you can't skip twice on the same piece of water"; the kids'll eat it up. There's gotta be something we can do to lighten 'er up some more, though. Monkeys? Sure, that's it: put a bunch of Israelis in half-assed monkey suits, and maybe in the big showdown at the end, we can cut to a clapping chimp and a bunch of camels for whatever-the-hell-reason. Still, the script kinda drags in the middle here. Maybe as The Seeker is skulking through the desert, he can run into Eli Wallach simmering in a copper cauldron in the middle of nowhere. What's he doing? I dunno, we can make up some artsy zen excuse. Maybe he's been soaking in oil for the past decade to try to dissolve his dick. Yeah! Yeah, that'll work.

Look, we're talking about a movie where a guy roundhouse-kicks a horse in the head. That's pretty much the review right there. If you read that and your kneejerk reaction is something like "well, Blue Underground's got my twenty bucks", then...congrats! Enjoy your shiny new copy of Circle of Iron.

I'd rattle off a plot summary, but you know the drill: some plucky upstart embarks on a legendary mission, beats up a bunch of guys on the way there, and...yeah, fade to black: roll credits. Jeff Cooper plays Cord -- The Seeker! -- who's trying to get back Ye Olde Ancient Tome of the Much-Storied MacGuffin that's supposed to hold more secrets of the universe than a whole bookcase full of Time-Life books. David Carradine pops up as the blind master who rattles off a bunch of elliptical zen soundbites to him, and...oh! He also plays the three badniks that test Cord along the way. Clearly, its story's not so much the point here.

"The way of the monkey is to play the fool. While you laugh at his antics, he bites you from behind. Unmask his ego, and you expose a coward disguised as a monkey."

Lee, Silliphant, and Coburn's screenplay was hacked apart by Stanley Mann (Damien: Omen II), and it kind of waffles between 3rd grade slapstick, arthouse pretension, and a blurry FAX of an impression of Master Pho from Kung Fu. Apparently zen philosophy means that when someone says something, you respond by inverting a couple of words and rephrasing it as a question. Ta-da! Just add water and you're an instant zen master. As the bard once said, everything's zen, including an ending that isn't the Final Epic Brawl you'd probably waltz in expecting.

You wouldn't think so by looking at it -- except...oh, you absolutely would! -- but Circle of Iron
I wasn't kidding when I said Eli Wallach has been in a copper pot for ten years, and there really is a monologue about melting off his evil, evil penis.
is the first and only flick that Richard Moore would ever direct. He confesses in his audio commentary on this disc that he really didn't have any particular interest in martial arts, they didn't exactly rehearse, and...yikes. Just "yikes". Moore was a seasoned cinematographer before stepping out as a director, and quite a few of the static shots look terrific: strikingly framed and taking full advantage of the exotic, timeless backdrop of Israel. He really doesn't know how to tackle the action, though, putting him in the same class as...well, pretty much everyone else associated with Circle of Iron. The brawls are clumsily staged and ineptly edited, lacking any sense of speed, power, or ferocity.

"They are The Near Ones. They are studying the perfecting of perfection."

And...wow! Jeff Cooper. Think a "Holy Diver"-era Ronnie James Dio crossed with a fortysomething version of Jeff Spicolli, put him on a Glenn Danzig weight-lifting regimen, and you're in the ballpark. He has the musculature, sure, but the chops...? Not so much. Cooper spends an hour and a half straight not quite acting, and he's really keen on awkwardly belting out a line, grinning from ear to ear, cackling for twenty seconds straight, and then moving onto the next chunk of dialogue. Case in point...? "Am I a begger with a begging bowl now? Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! I put you in my bowl! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!" ::blinks twice:: Zipping through the extras, it's made pretty clear that David Carradine forced the producers to cast Cooper in the lead, and...yeah, I believe it. Hell, the sight of Cooper crushing a rose and screaming "Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!"-style in the desert kind of changed my life. David Carradine plays four separate parts this time around, including Death-in-a-panther-suit that looked so howlingly bad that the producers solarized the footage in a failed attempt to try and salvage what they could. Oh, and in less embarrassing cameos than Eli Wallach's oil-roasting emasculator are Roddy McDowall and the mighty Christopher Lee, but they're only on the payroll to spout off some exposition.

Circle of Iron isn't good in the sense of...y'know, good, but hey, I'd rather watch something this fascinatingly bizarre than a forgettable, paint-by-numbers chop-socky flick. If you're more Cinéma du Fromage than Cahiers du Cinéma, you'll probably find Circle of Iron worth a late night rental. Rent It.


Video
Eh. Circle of Iron looks alright in high-def. Crispness and clarity can be kind of erratic -- there are some extremely soft stretches lurking around in here -- and only a few scattered moments really impress. Its colors tend to be nicely saturated and pack a wallop, but the timing can vary wildly from one shot to the next, particularly throughout the first fight where it'll go from bright to dull to kind of yellowed. It's a little dustier than normal for a Blue Underground release, and there's also a thin, translucent bar that runs vertically for quite a bit of the movie. The image looks slightly jittery as well. Grain levels are all over the map, and the way it clumps together gives the movie a very different texture than most everything else that Blue Underground has issued on Blu-ray to date. This is probably their weakest outing so far in high-def, although I think that says more about the dizzingly high standard they've set than anything about Circle of Iron in particular, and a mostly-forgotten thirty year old flick shot on a shoestring will only ever look so amazing anyway. Not great but good enough.

Circle of Iron is pillarboxed to preserve what I assume is its European aspect ratio of 1.66:1, and its AVC encode is spread across both layers of this BD-50. Although the encode does have plenty of legroom, I did notice some nasty artifacting in a red flag during the first fight, although that's the sort of background thing that only a nitpicky Blu-ray reviewer with too much time on his hands would probably be able to spot.


Audio
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Circle of Iron serves up two lossless 7.1 soundtracks -- one in Dolby TrueHD and the other in DTS-HD Master Audio. It's kind of a drag that the original monaural audio isn't anywhere on this Blu-ray disc, though. As solid a job as the remix generally does in spreading out the crowd noise, atmospherics, and stock chop-socky effects, some of the pans to the surrounds early on are jarringly awkward. After the opening brawl has wrapped up and Roddy McDowall has declared a champion, the rush of the roaring crowd starts in the front channels and a moment later blares from the surrounds. They don't rise at the same time, and there's no fade to gradually ease it in. It's abrupt and distracting. Something similar happens a few minutes later as Carradine's Blind Man walks through the pathways of this ancient city. The bell tied to one of his toes rings as he walks, but rather than smoothly easing from channel to channel, it just awkwardly leaps around. Maybe it's because this is a 7.1 remix and I'm saddled with a 5.1 rig, but I haven't run into any like this with the majority of the other eight-channel Blu-ray discs I've dug into over the past couple of years.

Admittedly, though, aside from those couple of issues early on, the remix is pretty convincing. The fidelity in this obscure, low-budget, thirtysomething year old zen-arthouse-kung-fu flick is not surprisingly pretty limited -- no shimmering, crystalline highs or foundation-rattling bass this time around -- but it's still perfectly listenable. I definitely dig the squawking Minimoog or whatever that is that Aussie composer Bruce Smeaton keeps chucking around in there. 'Sokay for what it is.

A Dolby Digital 5.1 EX track has also been included alongside subtitles in English (SDH), French, and Spanish.


Extras
  • Playing
    [click on the thumbnail to enlarge]
    the Silent Flute
    (14 min.; SD): First up is an interview with David Carradine, and among the topics he breezes through here are tackling these four different roles, winding up having his nose broken twice in the space of four days, filming in Israel, carving The Blind Man's trademark flute out of bamboo he grew on the Kung Fu set, and running through the three different titles that Circle of Iron was juggling at one point.

  • The Producer (30 min.; SD): Even though Circle of Iron only gobbles up a tiny portion of this interview, co-producer Paul Maslansky's fascinating career retrospective is easily my favorite of the extras on this Blu-ray disc. He lobs out such stories as scouting for locations with Harryhausen producer Charles Schneer, Michael Reeves strolling up to his apartment with a suitcase full of £18,000 to make Sister of Satan, directing the Blaxploitation zombie flick Sugar Hill, directors from George Lucas to Steven Spielberg offering to lend him and George Cukor a hand during The Blue Bird's problematic shoot, and coming up with the concept for Police Academy on a location shoot for The Right Stuff. Maslansky does touch on Circle of Iron in particular, including how he came onboard the flick, marveling at Christopher Lee, and mentioning how Jeff Cooper wound up with a tooth carving through his cheek in an early fight sequence. Oops.

  • Karate Master (31 min.; SD): I also really dug this extremely candid interview with fight choreographer Joe Lewis. Widely acknowledged as the Father of American Kickboxing, Lewis really doesn't pull any punches (zing!), ranting about what a lazy, unprepared, overentitled prick David Carradine was, how he wanted nothing to do with Circle of Iron but grudgingly came on to try to salvage the fight sequences, and...hey! how he earned his own reputation for being difficult to work with. This one's more of a career retrospective too, and Lewis delves into racking up a closetful of black belts, his dominance in the tournament circuit, working alongside Bruce Lee, establishing himself as one of the most colossal talents in kickboxing, and his big starring turn in Jaguar Lives!

  • Audio
    [click on the thumbnail to enlarge]
    Interview with Co-writer Stirling Silliphant
    (25 min.; SD): This interview with Kick Magazine from 1980 plays over an extensive selection of stills. Silliphant touches briefly on Circle of Iron, mostly to note that Bruce Lee felt the film was in his past once financing had finally been lined up. Text following up on the audio interview charts the troubled history of the project and notes how disappointed Silliphant was with the final product. The conversation really swirls around Bruce Lee, including the rampant prejudice and dismissal he encountered -- and, at his own hands, overcame -- in Hollywood as well as lobbing out a story about Lee beating down two bodyguards of a very skeptical (and quickly convinced!) Frank Sinatra.

  • Audio Commentary: Blue Underground's David Gregory moderates the commentary with director Richard Moore. It's a decent track, and Moore chats about sitting down in the director's chair after years as a cinematographer, shooting in such a sprawling variety of Israeli ruins, nearly marrying model Erica Creer, co-founding Panavision (!), and defending the movie's artsy-zen-no-punching-or-kicking-or-bo-staffs-or-throwing-stars ending. Moore says a couple of things that really don't make any sense, like nudity being verboten in theatrical releases back in 1978, but whatever. It's worth a listen.

  • Trailers and TV spots (7 min.; SD): An international trailer, a domestic clip, and three TV spots round out the extras.

The Final Word
There's bad, there's so-bad-it's-good, and then there's Circle of Iron. It's not even close to the final martial arts film that Bruce Lee envisioned -- so ambitious and all-encompassing that there'd be no need for the genre to continue -- but it is batshit crazy, and that's gotta count for something. Circle of Iron might get the nod as the single worst movie that Blue Underground has released on Blu-ray, but it's so deliriously far out there that it's still a ridiculous amount of fun. Grab a couple of friends and give it a spin when you're kinda punchy at 2 AM. Rent It.


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