Circle of Iron is based on a story created by Bruce Lee and James Coburn that gives a physical manifestation of Bruce’s Zen philosophy. Unfortunately Bruce died before it could be made, and David Carradine, and I still don’t know who the hell named him the keeper of All Things Bruce, acquired the rights to the story and made it into this film. Did he do Bruce proud?
Not exactly, but it is a train wreck with immense potential given the right creative forces (i.e. not Carradine). The story takes place in a fantasy world where everyone practices martial arts wearing the crappiest clothing ever, and our hero inexplicably wears a loincloth the entire film. I hate to say it, but only Tarzan could rock the loincloth. Of course women out there may think differently. I’ll leave that to you. Now I say inexplicably because at least one character actually questions this, when he could wear a perfectly good pair of pants. He doesn’t really answer, which is kind of his attempt to be badass, but his White Snake hairdo proves to cancel out any badassness he may have.
I refer to our hero Cord (Cooper), who enters a martial arts tournament in an attempt to win the right to find the warrior Zetan, and to defeat him in battle and take his Book of All Knowledge, which may show Cord how to sew his own f*ing pants. The first fight here is straight out of the David Carradine Can’t Fight For Shit book, which would permeate through the entire film. The fighting is slow and the shoddy camera work doesn’t do anyone any favors.
Cord loses the fight because he got a little overzealous and kicked his opponent when he was down, but he says screw you guys, I’ll go anyway, which begs the question why the hell a tournament was needed at all. Cord follows the winner of the tournament, and the soon finds himself alone after the Monkey Tribe tears the winner up, and all Cord can do is to assist the poor guy into committing seppuku. Cord then takes it upon himself to meet the challenges necessary to get to Zetan, and along with way meets a Blind Flute player (Carradine) who may have the keys to getting past he challenges if only Cord would stop long enough to listen, the Monkey King (Carradine again) who shows Cord a different style of fighting (don’t worry, it’s still the same old patented Carradine inside crescent kick), Death itself (Carradine yet again) and Chang-Sha, a travelling warlord (Yes, Carradine again)
Can Cord learn the various lessons they have to teach in time to face Zetan? What will he do with the book if he should win it?
This movie really isn’t good because it has an uphill fight with the shitty production values and lack of a real martial artist playing the main part, which is yet another infuriating practice that Hollywood hasn’t yet put to rest, though Jeff Cooper gives a good effort. He plays Cord with the right amount of arrogance, and he does a good job, loincloth and all, of bringing Cord down when he finds that he doesn’t know as much as he thinks he does. The film really follows the Zen/Buddhist philosophy the whole way, but the bad fight choreography and bad camera work really undermines this effort. Carradine is a pretty good actor, and plays all of the parts very well, but his fighting is lacking, as always. Once again he still makes his living off of Bruce Lee’s ideas, which really sticks in my craw, and always will. The story is a bit slow in places, but picks up when it needs to. This could have been something special if there was better production values and fight choreography.
As it stands, it’s a cheesy look into the philosophy that Bruce practiced in his everyday life, and the journey to try to maintain it…
(On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best)
CHOREOGRAPHY: (2) The main character, a martial arts fighter, is played by someone who doesn’t know any. The fights are all badly shot and the choreography is, well, shit.
STUNTS: (3) The stuntmen never really had much to do, since the film concentrates so much on Cooper and Carradine.
STAR POWER: (8) Eli Wallach? Christopher Lee? Roddy McDowell? What magic mojo did Carradine cast to to get this kind of talent to be in this? Impressive, nonetheless.
FINAL GRADE: (4) I am a bit torn here. On one hand, it is crappy, with poor martial arts and productions values so shitty I could have made this film, but the ideas and story beats are really good. Despite the low grade, I actually do recommend this to martial arts film fans as it is an interesting look into Bruce’s life philosophy and ideas, and if any film deserves to be remade, it’s this one, but let’s leave the loincloths at home…