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LIKABLE `IRON & SILK'; `FIRES,' `DOLLMAN,' `POPE,' HIT THE SHELVES ALONG WITH `BACKTRACK' BOMB

IRON & SILK - Mark Salzman's fond memories of Hangzhou and its people are the ingratiating stuff of "Iron & Silk," a kung-fu biography based on Salzman's China-set novel. Salzman plays a thinly disguised version of himself in Mark Franklin, a kung-fu film fanatic who visits the vast nation in hopes of finding martial-arts enlightenment. A college graduate with a major in Chinese culture, Mark takes a job teaching English at a small, dreary college in cautious Hangzhou. His students are an unfailingly polite group known as the "Middle-Aged English Teachers" who in turn educate him in their own endearingly diplomatic ways. Alas, Mark is no politician, a lack that costs him his friendship with his martial-arts mentor, teacher Pan Qingfu (as himself). As likable as he is stubborn, Pan essentially plays the Pat Morita role in this more-sophisticated variation on "The Karate Kid." Produced, directed and co-written by Shirley Sun, "Iron & Silk" offers some fancy footwork, but it is at heart a celebration of learning and learning well. 1991, 94 minutes, LIVE Entertainment, $89.99 - Rita Kempley (Washington Post)

FIRES WITHIN - A very basic but watchable drama that plays like a made-for-TV movie. Jimmy Smits is a freed Cuban political prisoner who joins his wife (Greta Scacchi) and child in Miami. In the meantime, she's got a lover (Vincent D'Onofrio), the man who plucked her and her little girl from the sea after they were forced to flee the island. And so the little girl is confused by the two father figures, the wife is torn between husband and lover - and the two guys don't like each other very much, either. Smits gets caught up with the Cuban exile community, endangering relatives still in Cuba and annoying Scacchi, who only wants to be left in peace. Whom will she pick? If you care a lot, then, by all means, this rental's for you. MGM/UA. - Russell Smith (Dallas Morning News)

BACKTRACK - Made in 1989 and released overseas, "Backtrack" had been gathering mold until Dennis Hopper recently re-edited the film. Whatever he has added or subtracted, the net sum is still the biggest zero since "Ishtar." Besides Hopper, who directs and plays a hit man, the imprisoned all-star cast includes Oscar winners Jodie Foster and Joe Pesci, Charlie Sheen, Vincent Price, Bob Dylan, Dean Stockwell and Fred Ward. Another name-drop: the producer is Dick Clark. Foster is constantly onscreen, sometimes nude, in the role of "conceptual artist" Anne Benton, who witnesses a gangland slaying. "Backtrack" meanders, runs in place and also occasionally requires viewers to endure Hopper's funk-induced saxophone riffs. He simply blows into the instrument and grooves on whatever comes out. Ditto his approach to moviemaking. Vestron. - Ed Bark (Dallas Morning News)

DOLLMAN - How cheap is this movie? Let's just say that the special effects make "Lost in Space" look like "Terminator 2." But what the movie lacks in budget it makes up for in attitude. Tim Thomerson, an actor whose face seems familiar for no good reason, plays a surly, reckless ex-cop from an unspecified planet who gets transported to Earth, where he's only about a foot tall. Worse, he lands in the South Bronx. The bad guys include a perpetually agitated drug dealer (Jackie Earle Haley) and a fairly witty disembodied head. "Dollman" is an odd, funny combination of gruff but campy humor and extreme gore. Made by the director of bargain-basement action flicks such as "Cyborg" and "Kickboxer II," the movie is neither for young kids nor adults with delicate sensibilities. It's rude, crude and proud of it. Paramount. - Russell Smith (Dallas Morning News)

THE POPE MUST DIET - Ever vigilant of religious sensitivities, America's major media refused to run ads for this film under its original title: "The Pope Must Die." The movie's distributor resolved the problem (and saved a lot of money) simply by adding a "t" to the existing ad copy. Of course, the film has nothing to do with the pope's eating habits, but it does star Robbie Coltrane, the British comic actor who's in the same weight class as John Candy. Despite the title's goofy history, the film itself is a slightly amusing story of a clerical glitch that propels a foul-up priest (Coltrane) to the exalted post of Holy Father. The Vatican - just like in "The Godfather, Part III" - is full of gangster types who do not wish the new pope well. Media. - Russell Smith (Dallas Morning News)VIDEO QUESTIONS

Q: I'm very upset that my cable company is now scrambling the basic channels. I don't see why this should be allowed. Can anything be done?

A: Cable companies defend scrambling as a way to prevent theft of service. But change is afoot. A bill to re-regulate the cable business was recently passed overwhelmingly by the U.S. Senate. An amendment to the bill would prohibit scrambling of basic channels when it prevents use of "premium" features on TVs and VCRs, such as cable-ready tuners and picture-in-picture. Legislative obstacles remain but the bill could become law this year.

Q: I like to use the better grade of 8mm tape in my camcorder. Some manufacturers (3M, Sony) do not list tape grade on 8mm packaging. Is there a publication that lists the manufacturers and respective tape grades?

A: The hobbyist magazines Video and Video Review run such lists at least once a year; Consumer Reports does so less frequently. But you could be misled in relying solely on manufacturer claims of high performance. Experience should tell you which brand and grade is best for your camcorder. - Andy Wickstrom (Knight-Ridder)