You can write on an ant's genitals how much I know about martial arts or martial arts in film, so with that in mind, I'm the wrong person to review and analyze Circle of Iron right off the bat. If I needed an introduction to martial arts on film, perhaps I should've went directly to the films of the genre's master Bruce Lee or even the contemporary works of Thailand-born director Tony Jaa rather than a film directed by the same man who was the cinematographer for Annie. Or, perhaps to evoke more drastic sentiment, the relationship between me and Circle of Iron was never meant to be.
This is a tedious spectacle, glitz with some really strong cinematography (go figure, given Moore's history) but some seriously bad acting, and surprisingly unremarkable fight scenes. The film revolves around martial arts fighters who are competing to challenge Zetan (Christopher Lee), a wizard who posses a special book of untold power of enlightenment that houses all the wisdom of the world. Cord (Jeff Cooper) is a brash, arrogant man who winds up defeating all of those before Zetan, yet is disqualified for fighting dirty one too many times. Nonetheless, he winds up following the tournament's winner Morthond (Anthony de Longis), who is also searching for Zetan. Together, the two can hopefully indulge in the winner's wisdom and also find a greater purpose for themselves outside of fighting.
There's also a recurring character played by David Carradine, a blind flute-player that turns up quite frequently during their trip. Along the way, we also see character actors like Eli Wallach playing a man stewing in a cauldron of oil in the middle of the desert in hopes to dissolve the lower half of his body in order to nullify all sexual arousal and urges in order to experience enlightenment. The scene begs religious interpretation I'm sure you can subscribe for yourself.
The problem with Circle of Iron is there are too many scenes like this, that either don't need an explanation or don't really warrant one. The characters in the film are fairly flat and the dialog is spouted in a wooden manner, with echo and emphasis that reminds of the voice-over narration on a CD-i video game. The look of the film saves it from becoming a totally boring affair, largely because Moore, who has had ample experience with cinematography on films of varying genres, makes the most out of a minimalist setting. He takes the stark contrasts of orange sand and ocean blue skies and makes them kiss and produce an eye-appealing visual palette, in conjunction with the film's official cinematographer Ronnie Taylor.
While Carradine, Lee, and even Wallach, for his momentary cameo, clearly give performances that incite evidence of at least a wee bit of inspiration, our two leading men, Cooper and de Longis, aren't very engaging leading men. Their chemistry is largely elevated or brought to life when one of the aforementioned men come on screen and liven things up. Other than that, it's almost a totally cold and unmoving slog.
This is especially sad after taking note of what Circle of Iron's production history was exactly. A passion project of Bruce Lee's for many years, the film wasn't completed until five years after the man's death. Lee wanted the film to be a real segway and informative piece about the idea of Zen, communicating its principles while infusing what Lee combat, martial arts, and other things that Lee loved in addition. While we'll never quite know what the master of martial arts thought of his film, I can at least state that I'd want my legacy and my beliefs touted with a lot more confidence and substance than what is found in this particular film.
Starring: Jeff Cooper, Anthony de Longis, Christopher Lee, David Carradine, and Eli Wallach. Directed by: Richard Moore.