The prologue to "circle of Iron" tells us it takes place in "a land that never was and always is," and that about sets the tone for this mishmash of martial-arts fantasies.

But kung fu movies are like porno flicks or Westerns - you don't see them for the subtleties of their plots. There's no point pretending "circle of Iron" is anything but a showcase for martial-arts scenes. Once you accept that, you can relax and enjoy the fancy footwork.

The fights are fun to watch, even for a non-aficionado. David Carradine, playing a blind kung fu guru, is the equal of any comic-book hero, swatting bad guys around like so many pesky flies. The violence is kept to a minimum and it's the cartoon kind we all grew up with, without any of those annoying little aftereffects like broken bones, brains on the pavement, etc. Considering some of the PG stuff around, it's hard to understand what earned this movie its "r" rating; there's more gore to be found on the average TV adventure show.

The story revolves around a restless young martial artisan, a sort of Clint Eastwood of the Orient, and his search for "enlightenment." Jeff Cooper's air of self-satisfied masculinity is right for the part, although with his tigh cut-offs and California fluff of a hair-do he he doesn't quite fit in - everyone else is done up either in Desert Chic (exotic robes and veils) or Nouveau Ascetic (baggy pedalpushers). Anyway, the wandering Cooper teams up with the older and wiser Carradine. He's one of those smug, esoteric, know-it-all types who answers questions with questions until you want to grab him up by his toe bells and shake him.

The pseudo-intellectual strain that runs through this movie is bothersome, but the kung fu cowboys are an entertaining pair. And if the script isn't exactly brimming over with wit, there are occasional flashes of humor - experienced old man, wise to the ways of nature: "a fish saved my life once." Eager young disciple: "how?" Old man: "i ate it."

The filmmakers call this the ultimate kung fu movie, and worry in the prologue about starting a controversy. "circle of Iron" is such run-of-the-mill stuff it's hard to know what they mean, unless they're talking about all the horses that keep getting beaten up in the course of the fighting. At least the stunt men are getting paid for the lumps they take.

CIRCLE OF IRON - K-B Silver CAPTION: Picture, DAVID CARRADINE, STAR OF "CIRCLE OF IRON."; Illustration, no caption