Chuck Norris is a Billy Jack for the '80s. Like Tom Laughlin's reluctant antihero, Norris is a one-dimensional character whose name may change from film to film but whose path to provoked violence follows predictably escalating twists. "Forced Vengeance," which opened over the weekend, is one of Norris' less sterling efforts, a scratchy mono to the stereo of such earlier efforts as "Return of the Dragon" and "Force of One."
Part of the problem is a script that seems better suited to '60s television. In fact, the exotic Hong Kong locale was more effectively used in such old TV series as "I Spy" and "Man from U.N.C.L.E." The plot is pretty threadbare, too, involving an underworld attempt to take over a Honk Kong casino at which Norris happens to be security chief. This time there's no misty setup for just how Norris got his considerable skills, though it's suggested that the patriarch of the casino (played by veteran character actor David Opatoshu) has taught Norris how to rein in his temper and direct it toward business only (like flying to America to collect a gambling debt, or keeping an eye on errant croupiers and half-witted sons).
Another part of the problem is Norris' monotonous acting. The former undefeated world martial arts champion is handsome, heroic and terminally sincere, but he's also much more agile with his feet than with his face or delivery (and the Jack Webb voice-over does little to advance the story line). If it weren't for the music, you'd hardly know the difference between Norris' reactions to having his cowboy hat stepped on and having his girlfriend raped and killed along with his best friend; actually, there isn't any difference at all. Norris goes about the business of evening scores with the enthusiasm of an underpaid accountant. There doesn't seem to be a mean bone in his body, though there are plenty of broken bones in those of the bad guys who get in the way of his feet, fists and bullets: Yes, the practical Norris has no qualms about making use of the martial arts when he needs to.
Predictable twists and characters abound--the oversized thug, the mysterious oriental Don, a resolutely despicable villain (played by Michael Cavanaugh), beautiful women (Mary Louise Weller and Camila Griggs), a marathon run through Honk Kong, the good-cop/bad-cop; there are even bows to James Bond epics (in the neon-lit slow-motion shadow combat of the title sequence) and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (the gun against the hot-shot attacker).
Unfortunately, director James Fargo hasn't found a way to spread these ingredients in a cohesive frame, and there's no entry point for audience involvement. Even Norris' once-noble reluctance to use violence as anything but a last resort seems to be eroding; in "Forced Vengeance," he lashes out at the drop of his hat. This is a martial arts film with little punch to it.