Before his untimely death, Bruce Lee and actor/friend/student, James Coburn, began working on a project that would be the ultimate Bruce Lee film; something that would capture the legendary fighter's spirituality, as well as his particular brand of martial arts. Sadly, Lee passed away, but Lee's friend, director Richard Moore (as well the late David Carradine who, oddly enough, also replaced Lee in the Kung Fu television series he'd helped to create!) brought Lee's final vision to light with 1978's Circle of Iron.
Cord (Cooper) is a fighter who enters a competition in which the prize is a chance to seek out The Book of Enlightenment. The uneducated Cord wins the fighting competition, but breaks several rules during the competition and is disqualified. However, when the chosen winner fails the very first trial of his quest, Cord is given a second chance to seek out Zetan (Lee), the keeper of The Book. Along the way, Cord meets a mysterious blind man (Carradine in one of four roles) who offers to teach him the spiritual aspects of being a warrior as they continue the journey. Cord and The Blind Man develop a special bond (the man plays a flute only Cord can here, which helps to guide his decisions), and his teachings show Cord there is more to being a warrior than strength and skill; the true power of a warrior is in his heart and mind.
Circle of Iron is a gorgeously filmed martial arts epic that focuses more on the mystical side of the genre rather than the fisticuffs, and that's a welcome thing indeed, as I found Circle of Iron rather fascinating. Bruce Lee had not only created his own form of martial art (Jeet Kune Do) but also developed a philosophy that incorporated elements from both Eastern mysticism and Jewish mythology- a way of thinking that's explored throughout the film. It’s an intriguing blend folklore and fantasy that gives Circle of Iron a little more depth than your average chopsocky flick. Those expecting non-stop action, however, may be disappointed as Circle of Iron is anything but that. While there are plentiful fights, they aren't the typical brawls we're used to, and the real focus of this film is what happens between these fights, as Cord makes the gradual transition from fighter to mystic warrior.
Blue Underground originally released Circle of Iron on DVD back in 2007 as both a standard single disc release as well as a two-disc collector’s edition. Now the company brings the film into the HD realm with a surprisingly attractive 1.66:1 1080p transfer. While there are noticeable flecks and signs of print damage, the image quality is superb, with pleasingly warm fleshtones, vibrant colors, and fairly solid detail throughout. There’s an inherent softness to the image, but that’s obviously a result of stylistic choice and not a fault in the transfer.
As has become the norm for Blue Underground BD releases, we are given two HD audio options in the form of Dolby 7.1 TrueHD, and a Dolby 7.1 DTS-HD tracks. The audio is simply superb, and much better than I expected from a film from this period. While it’s not going to replace any reference audio discs in your collection, the depth and dimension offered here is really quite impressive, with a mix that encompasses the entire soundfield. Dialogue is crisp and clean, bass response is robust, and atmospheric effects are immersive and organic.
Extras are carryovers from the DVD release, with a commentary track from director, Richard Moore and Blue Underground’s David Gregory, and lengthy interviews with star, David Carradine, fight choreographer, Joe Lewis, producer, Paul Maslansky, and an audio-interview with writer, Stirling Silliphant. Rounding out the extras are two trailers and a collection of TV spots.
Circle of Iron is a welcome addition to any martial arts fan's collection, if only for it's fascinating subtext and vicarious involvement from Lee. However, fans of fantasy films, and quest films in particular, will find a lot to like in this film. Sure, it borders on cheesy at times, and some of the unintentionally funny dialogue sounds as though it should have been accentuated with the ring of a gong, but this film has a lot of heart, and it’s obvious that all involved approached the material with the utmost seriousness in honor of its creator.