Let’s begin with what the newly remastered, two-disc “kick ass” edition of 1978’s Circle of Iron is not. Despite the promo blurb, there is very little “kick ass” about this film. It has its moments, but if you’re expecting nonstop martial arts action, you’ll be sorely disappointed. If, on the other hand, you think this film might give you some insight into Taoism, you’ll end up with a few kernels of SoCal pop Zen that might leave you amused, but hardly enlightened.
Once those two minor issues are dismissed, Circle of Iron (aka The Silent Flute) is an enjoyable, if simplistic parable, best regarded as a guilty pleasure. The protagonist of the film, Cord the Seeker (Jeff Cooper), is a headstrong, undisciplined fighter on an unsanctioned quest to find the Book of All Knowledge, guarded by the wizard Zetan (Christopher Lee). As is usually the case with quests, Cord’s journey to enlightenment is fraught with challenges and perils, all borne, in one form or another, of the trappings of his own ego. It’s sort of Siddhartha meets TV’s Kung Fu.
Despite its shortcomings, Circle of Iron offers some interesting performances, most notably those by David Carradine, who shines in four separate roles. As Blind Man, he’s an extension of his Caine role, older, perhaps more jaded, but even more predisposed to fortune-cookie bits of wisdom. His portrayal of Changsha, chieftain of a nomadic tribe (who apparently got their clothes from whatever happened to be available in the costuming department), is equal parts greasy biker and crown jester. He’s unrecognizable as Monkey Man, leader of a half-simian, half-human race who are the first line of defense against those who would take the Book of All Knowledge. Here, as in his brief appearance as Death the Panther, his performance relies more on his background in dance than in martial arts.
Jeff Cooper, who would go on to a stellar, if short-lived career as a Dallas bit player, doesn’t fare so well as Cord. Looking like a cross between a surfer dude and Beastmaster, he romps through his quest with a “whatever, dude” emotional range. Even when he finds his lover from the night before (Erica Creer) crucified the next morning, he can only muster a grim expression before sallying forth on his search for the damn Book.
Shot in some gorgeous, remote locations in Israel, Circle of Iron manages to evoke an otherwordly atmosphere befitting the nature of the story. Cameo performances by Eli Wallach, Roddy McDowell, and Christopher Lee also save the movie from complete mediocrity.