Chuck Norris had the distinction of trading blows with Bruce Lee in the showdown of "Return of the Dragon," Lee's last completed vehicle. that association, plus many years as a national karate champion and karate-instructor-to-the-stars, probably gives Norris as much right as anyone to compete as Lee's successor in the martial arts genre.

The right, perhaps -- but not necessarily the appeal. "A force of One," the second Norris opus released within the space of a few months (he struck earlier with "The Good Guys Wear Black"), reveals the brawny, hairychested, mournful-faced blond as a sincere B-movie straight-arrow with very modest personality and acting resources. While it might be fair to describe Norris as a white Jim Kelly, it would be absurd to compare his studly but stolid screen image with the phenomenally witty, fast-moving Lee's exhilarating presence.

Even the fight scenes, centered around Norris' matches as a defending middleweight karate champ named Matt Logan, appear to reflect a dogged, literal-minded personality. Although they're more realistic than the set-tos in a typically playful, farfetched kung fu melodrama, they're also less amusing to watch than those self-evidently fantastic slugfests where the fancy footwork often seemed todefy the laws of probability or gravity but imposed a satisfying dream logic all its own.

Not that Norris isn't handy with his well-muscled limbs. He simply lacks the almost cartoon streamlining and velocity that made Lee a uniquely stirring and entertaining action star. Norris may very well sustain a profitable low-budget career as a Big Brotherly image of physical fitness and moral rectitude for juvenile audiences, but he will never seem One of a Kind in the way that Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Errol Flynn, Burt Lancaster and Bruce Lee have in the swashbucking tradition.

In "Force," a karate killer is on the loose, decimating the ranks of the narcotics division of the Santa Madre police department. While prepping for a championship bout, Norris is persuaded to aid the investigation and give special instruction to the remaining, endangered narcs, including a woman officer played by Jennifer O'Neill, sporting an early Jean Seberg haircut and more relaxed than usual -- perhaps because she's obviously the polished professional in comparision with the star.

Ernest Tidyman of "The Frence Connection" and Shaft" frame contributed to the script, not exactly amodel of ingenuity or sophistication. For example, Norris gives his character an adopted son, an orphaned black teenager, who proves melodramatically expendable, snuffed by the bad guys after blundering onto their idenities. There's no concious racial condescension involved in this underhanded heart-tugger. Its just excruciatingly simple-minded.

Paul Aaron, a theatrical director who made an admirable film debut supervising the fine performances of Meg Foster, Perry King and Valerie Curtin in "A Different Story," seems a bit out of his shallows on "A Force of One," presumably a quick mercenary assignment. One detects flickering intentions of enlarging on the formula material -- especially in the byplay between the actors playing narcs -- but the prevailing mood of the entertainment is decidedly bargain-basement.

Moreover, the filmmakers seem to have been sabotaged by exceptionally shoddy lab work. There are tell-tale scratches all over the image, suggesting more than manhandled prints. It appears that the negative itself may have taken a fearful beating at the hands of unknown assailants.