At the height of his international fame, the legendary Bruce Lee – along with his friend and student James Coburn and Oscar -winning screenwriter Stirling Silliphant – began to write what he believed would be the greatest achievement of his film career. Five years after his mysterious death, Lee’s vision would finally be realized. David Carradine, Christopher Lee, Roddy McDowall and Eli Wallach star in this acclaimed cult hit that brings Lee’s personal philosophy to the screen with a still-potent combination of mysticism, humor and martial arts mayhem.
Circle of Iron 7.0
After Bruce Lee’s death, and the subsequent success of his ‘Enter the Dragon’, it didn’t take very long for various people to hop on the bandwagon, hoping to make a name or some quick cash off his back.
There was, for instance, the posthumous release of his unfinished film ‘Game of Death’, which was an incomplete mess, and its inevitable sequel, which had hardly anything to do with the martial art legend. There were even wannabe martial art stars exploiting his name by branding themselves with monikers similar to his (such as Bruce Li and Bruce Le), or by naming their films after him (‘Fists of Bruce Lee’ and ‘Legend of Bruce Lee’).
Then there was ‘Circle of Iron’.
‘Circle of Iron’ is a film based on a story that Bruce Lee co-created called ‘The Silent Flute’. It was originally conceived with the help of James Coburn and Sterling Silliphant (who would later write the script). Thing is, this project was borne years before, and by the time he passed away, Lee had basically forgotten all about it – having moved on to other, arguably, better things.
Still, there was this quasi-legitimate Bruce Lee property that had yet to be milked, and someone had to do it – as a tribute, of course.
And yet, it’s not as though, on paper, it must have looked like it would be a masterpiece of modern cinema and that it was a project that demanded to be produced. The story is fairly simplistic: it’s the tale of a martial artist who goes on a quest to find the book of all knowledge. On this journey, he will have to face trials that have felled many before him – and succeed.
Déjà vu, much?
The real problem, however, is that the trials are too few and too lame. This is nothing here like the labours Hercules had to complete to prove himself to Zeus: instead, our protagonist eventually faces a whole three challenges, two of which consist of mano-a-mano combat and the other consists of… what… succumbing to the charms of a woman? Evidently, there isn’t anything ingenious in it at all and it’s hardly inspiring.
Originally, the story was to be a vehicle for Bruce Lee’s philosophical meanderings (he incorporated some of them in ‘Enter the Dragon’ to great effect, actually). However, while the Zen philosophy aspects of the film were interesting, they were a bit incoherent at times and could sound all too cheesy and simple-minded; it didn’t contribute in any substantial way because it felt superficial.
Meanwhile, the action scenes were filmed in a pretty mundane way, sapping any possible excitement from the proceedings. Furthermore, the martial artists, while credible, didn’t appear to be as skilled and/or as energetic as one might expect from a Bruce Lee-related film; it all felt a bit half-hearted, as though the performers were only mildly interested in what was expected of them. Frankly, if I hadn’t watched ‘T.N.T. Jackson’ mere hours prior to this, I would have probably fallen asleep – but the contrast between the two really helped.
The casting decisions were interesting. For starters, the protagonist (who can hardly be called a hero, due to his unpleasant, boisterous and cocksure demeanour) is played by a man much older than one would expect for the role; while he is supposed to be an accomplished warrior, he is also supposed to be young enough to have a naïve and immature approach to life – hence the need for teachings. Jeff Cooper is neither young, nor good enough an actor to warrant his involvement – but he was a friend of the other main actor, David Carradine, so that explains that.
Carradine, while a favourite of Tarantino’s, is not exactly what I would consider to be a fantastic actor. He’s perhaps better than some, but he could never convince me of anything but a casual integration with his characters. Still, he manages here to immerse himself in not only one, but FOUR on-screen personas in this film – only one of which I was suspicious of (I hadn’t guessed that he was playing the other two at all!). So, while he’s not setting the screen on fire as an actor or martial artist, he does deserve some respect for this minor achievement.
Of course, things would have been very different with Bruce Lee in Carradine’s (many) roles and James Coburn in Jeff Cooper’s place – as was originally intended. But one can only imagine what could have been: would it have been better? Or only different?
With a medium-low production like this one, it’s not entirely sure. Its visibly low(er) budget sometimes affected the film – as in the opening sequence in the arena, where the scope is so small and the set is so cheap-looking that you can’t help but yawn at what should have been a spectacle. There’s also the monkey men sequence, in which the monkey men themselves looked like soft turd scraped from under the simian soles of the apes in the original ‘Planet of the Apes’ and in the first part of 2001: A Space Odyssey’; it had been done considerably better – and many, many years prior.
There are some nice surprises along the way, though, like the cameos by Roddy McDowall, Eli Wallach and Christopher Lee – even if their roles don’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. And the story didn’t get completely predictable: after the initial confrontation, Jeff Cooper was set up as the film’s villain – only to end up being the protagonist. He also took a dead rival’s medallion at one point, and other films would have set him up as the fall guy for that man’s murder. Not so here. And that’s a good thing.
In the end, what we get is essentially an integration of the philosophical elements of ‘Enter the Dragon’ crossed with the concept of ‘Game of Death’. But without Bruce Lee. I’m sure that, in Lee’s and Coburn’s daydreams, there were grand visions of an adventure-filled epic that would enthral the viewers and bring box office gold. That’s not the result here, but it’s nonetheless enjoyable to the degree that one can let one’s imagination fill in the gaps a little bit.
Mostly, though, it’s only a must for completist Bruce Lee fans.
Nota bene: a producer is currently working on bringing a new version of ‘The Silent Flute’ to the big screen. Maybe, with proper production values, it could be all it was ever meant to be. Except that it’s still without Bruce Lee.