A group of kids camping in Tanglewood Forest listen spellbound as Clovis Madison (Roscoe Lee Browne) recounts the story of John McKenna (Chuck Norris), a karate-kicking mountain man who died battling bandits a century ago. According to legend ancient spirits brought McKenna back to life to protect the forest with his mystical powers. With the forest threatened by greedy developers led by heartless tycoon Travis Thorne (Terry Kiser), McKenna reappears to answer the prayers of Austene (Megan Paul), a troubled girl caring for a deadbeat, alcoholic dad Arlen (Michael Beck of The Warriors (1979)). When Austen and her friends head into the forest to initiate the youngest of the group into their forest loving band, the Lords of Tanglewood, McKenna uses his shape-shifting powers to help them stop Thorne's lumberjacks from destroying any more trees.
Evidently years of being derided as a 'wooden' actor convinced Chuck Norris to plant himself in the woods. Forest Warrior was the last in a run of experimental films Chuck tried with brother Aaron Norris to reshape his image for the new mood of the Nineties. With the collapse of his parent studio Cannon Films and the rise of younger, hipper stars (at that time, at least) like Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme (whose films were no better but slicker and more expensive B films from major studios), Chuck was no longer America's number one action hero. He tried post-modernism with Sidekicks (1992) (actually one of his better films), gothic horror in Hellbound (1994) and the inevitable canine cop comedy Top Dog (1995) before gradually phasing out his film career for an interminable stint on television as Walker: Texas Ranger. Eventually Chuck rode the Eighties nostalgia wave to cult stardom albeit more as an internet meme than movie star, with the exception of a crowd-pleasing cameo in The Expendables 2 (2012).
Indeed millions more watched the animated GIF and YouTube clip where Chuck stops a chainsaw with his bare hands than this straight-to-video clunker. Interestingly Forest Warrior was produced by Nu Image, a company founded by former Cannon employees with a similar hi-octane, low-brain ethos. They eventually hit paydirt with The Expendables franchise and Olympus Has Fallen (2013) (basically Cannon films with better budgets) but back in 1996 were on shakier ground. Despite the odd asinine action scene where McKenna manifests out of thin air to beat up baffled lumberjacks, Forest Warrior is not really a Chuck Norris fight-fest. It is a children's movie with a clumsy ecological theme. Which did not sit well with Chuck's already dwindling fan-base.
As with many family films made by inexperienced hands, the attempts at slapstick comedy and heartwarming sentiment are strained and awkward. While the relationship between embittered dad Arlen and caring daughter Austene is well played and fairly affecting at times, Aaron Norris drops the more engaging small town drama like a hot potato to concentrate on sub-Home Alone (1990) antics in the woods and more scenes of Chuck kicking men in the nuts. This was the closest Chuck Norris came to portraying a superhero. Much like Clint Eastwood in Pale Rider (1985), he appears as an avenging angel in answer to a little girl's prayers albeit far less ambiguously and with mystical (poorly realized) shape-shifting powers to turn into a bear, wolf and an eagle. Unfortunately the concept was better handled in Eighties trash TV favourite Manimal which had the benefit of Rick Baker's nifty special effects. Cheap computer morphing effects render the big scene where Chuck turns into a talking bear fairly lacklustre. Despite an impressive forest locale, Aaron Norris squanders the sporadically evocative photography of João Fernandes. He singularly fails to weave any sort of mythic grandeur to match Bill Elliot's soaring score. Instead his static, clunky direction yields an aimless, haphazard mess.
Granted Steven Seagal's cod-mystical eco-sermonising in, among others, On Deadly Ground (1994) could be just as embarrassing but Seagal was mildly more convincing. Chuck's screen persona as a hairier, karate-kicking John Wayne sits uneasily with the film's pro-environmental message. Given Chuck's reaction to international terrorism in the Eighties was famously gung-ho it comes as no surprise his solution to complex environmental issues are the most simplistic imaginable. Big business despoiling the environment? Punch 'em in the head! Weirdly each time McKenna hits someone the film cuts away to some cute little critter in an awkward attempt to stress who he is fighting for. Failing that his kid sidekicks utilize childish booby-traps or, in one especially ridiculous instance, bad rock music to make the lumberjacks dance their troubles away! Sadly, Ron Swanson and Galen Thompson's screenplay shoots down the one promising idea early on when Madison says this is not a story where Chuck Norris battles Sasquatch. Now there's a movie!