Review: Forest Warrior (1996)
The time: the late 1800's. The place: a beautiful mountain in the Pacific Northwest. The Chuck: a brave mountain man named McKenna. The action: McKenna dwells in the pristine forest land given to him by an Indian chief, the father of his bride. Unfortunately, his bride is now deathly ill and McKenna is rushing to bring back medicine to save her life. In the dark of night, exhausted from his journey, McKenna is ambushed by loggers who want to plunder his land. He fights them valiantly, using an old Indian fighting technique called Karate, but even his mad combat skills cannot deflect bullets, and McKenna finds this out the hard way.
Having been shot several times, McKenna rolls down a very long hill and falls off a cliff into a river. His body washes up on the shore, where a forest spirit in the form of a bear spots him. Realizing right away that this was no ordinary human, the bear spirit, along with a wolf and eagle spirit, use their magic to grant McKenna a new life as one of them. McKenna becomes a forest spirit and guardian of the mountain. As such, he can take the forms of the three animal spirits who saved him as well as his manly original form. As the years pass, McKenna intervenes whenever humans endanger his forest land and he quickly becomes the stuff of campfire stories.
Fast forward to the present day. A small lumber-oriented community has grown up around the mountain, but Tanglewood (the forest where McKenna once lived) has been left largely untouched. Until now, that is. Greedy half-wit business tycoon Travis Thorne has gone behind the backs of the townsfolk and made arrangements to begin logging Tanglewood. Thorne's flunkies, under the command of a mean-spirited bully named Williams, begin surveying the forest when they encounter some suspiciously precocious children.
These are the self-proclaimed "Lords of Tanglewood" - a group kids from town who ride their bikes into the forest to play and have wacky adventures. Their base of operations is a treehouse the size of Charles Foster Kane's Xanadu, where they are allowed to camp out without adult supervision. Here is a brief breakdown of the kids and their general characteristics: Justin: short, geeky but self-assured - the brains of the operation; Austene: the lone female - pretty and tough but with a tender side; Logan: doe-eyed, curly-topped runt - the heart and soul of the group; Brian: oldest member - long blonde hair, slightly arrogant, probable future stoner; Lewis: generic kid with no distinguishing traits - possibly a relative of one of the producers.
The kids stumble across Williams and two of his men as they are about to shoot a bear cub. Austene yells at them to stop, which they do, but only to turn their menacing attentions towards the children. The Forest Warrior takes this as his cue to appear (in human form) and administer an 1800's-style ass-whooping to Williams and company. He congratulates Austene for her bravery, then disappears.
Williams reports the trouble to Thorne, who suggests that the presence of those darned kids will continue to be a raspberry seed in his molar unless their treehouse is destroyed. He sends Williams back to Tanglewood to do the dirty deed. While the kids are off fishing, Williams plants no less than a dozen sticks of dynamite under the treehouse and sets a timer to blow the place to kingdom come. Austene happens to come back early and is nearly transformed into pretty, pigtailed chunks. Luckily, the Forest Warrior is there to save her, bringing her back from death with magical glowy lights.
It's an easy task for the townsfolk (even these townsfolk) to figure out who was responsible for the treehouse bombing, and the Sheriff also learns about Thorne's plans to begin his illegal logging operation. Sheriff Ramsey, along with Austene's frequently drunk dad Arlen, and local store-owner and friend of the children Clovis, form a small posse and go after Thorne. Meanwhile, the kids are way ahead of the adults, setting booby traps for Thorne and his men in Tanglewood.
Thorne, rather predictably, falls victim to the pint-sized insurgents and ends up battered, bruised, and covered with poison sumac. His punishment continues when he encounters the Forest Warrior, who gives him one last chance to repent his evil ways. Thorne foolishly resists and is savagely beaten by our hero. When the Forest Warrior transforms into a bear, Thorne suffers a psychotic breakdown and is carted off to jail babbling incoherently. The Forest Warrior gives Thorne's logging crew a sound thrashing just for good measure, and Tanglewood is safe once more.
In Forest Warrior, we find Chuck Norris cultivating the family-friendly side of his screen persona. No guns or knives with which to fight the baddies this time - just Chuck's fists and feet of fury along with some magic powers. The role of minor deity seems to suit him; the blank stoicism that typifies any Chuck performance fits this character nicely, and who among us hasn't longed to see our nation's greatest living actor transform into various forest creatures? I know I have!
It's too bad that the Forest Warrior doesn't have more scenes in the movie that bears his name. The kids are the real protagonists in the story, and the F. W. only bobs up now and again to save their bacon. The child actors here are acceptable if generic, although Austene is the only one whose character is very developed.
I have a theory that when the producers of a film such as this one contract with an animal training company for the non-human actors, the filmmakers get access to all of the animals the training company has for a flat rate. That would be the only logical explanation for the appearance of - in addition to the bear, wolf, and eagle that the story actually calls for - a bear cub, a snake, a badger, a raccoon, two varieties of owl, a skunk, a toad, and a flying squirrel. About a third of the movie consists of shots of these various and sundry creatures, and you can almost hear the producers saying, "well, we paid for the damned things - let's get some use out of them."
The most insufferable moments in Forest Warrior are probably the two instances of the infamous "montage set to music." You know they're coming in a movie like this - you can smell them a mile away. It's an easy way to add valuable extra minutes to a film's run time, which explains why it's such a pervasive device. The first one is an unremarkable sequence showing the kids riding their bikes from the town to the forest, set to a blandly cheerful song called "Summertime." The second is brought on when Logan broadcasts a Little Richard-style rock song over the walkie-talkies of the loggers, causing them to jump down off their trucks and dance around, playing air-guitar with their chainsaws. The combination of the terrible song and the visuals of pudgy loggers gyrating around results in a feeling of squeamishness and a tendency to distractedly pick lint balls off the arm of the couch. At least for me.
As far as notable supporting actors here, there are a few C- and D-listers who might be of interest. Roscoe Lee Browne, who plays Clovis, has done quite a bit of work in television roles, as well as voice work (he was the narrator in the movie Babe, for instance). Another well-known face from t.v. popping up in Forest Warrior is Loretta Swit ("Hot Lips" from "M.A.S.H."), who plays Shirley, mother of Brian and Logan. Wil Shriner (host of a morning t.v. talk show in the late 80's) makes a cameo, and Austene's dad Arlen is portrayed with scenery-chewing emotion by Michael Beck, who also played the country-fried Dallas in Megaforce. Yeah, the casting director was dredging pretty far down in the sea of actors, but you don't want your supporting actors to be bigger stars than your star, and when your star is Chuck Norris, there's only so much farther down the list you can go.
Travis Thorne is about as cartoonish as a villain can get. Maybe it's the cigar; maybe it's the Yosemite Sam clothes; maybe it's the way his eyes bug out when he's berating his henchmen; I'm not sure. The fact that he seems to want to cut down the forest just for the sheer pleasure of doing it makes him seem a trifle over-the-top to me. Forest Warrior almost reaches the realm of parody when Thorne has his climactic encounter with our hero. Instead of the Scrooge-like conversion from evil to good that you sometimes see in movies like this, Thorne goes completely off the deep end and is last seen in the midst of a schizophrenic break with reality.
Every children's movie needs a good message, and Forest Warrior definitely comes through in that department. We learn that it's wrong to destroy God's creation, and secondly, that if anyone is caught doing it, they need to have their ass handed to them. Yes, violence IS the answer! Woo hoo! The Forest Warrior passes this valuable lesson on to little Logan towards the end of the movie when, after having beaten Thorne's henchman Williams to a pink pulp, he lets Logan deliver the death blow. If only all children could have the experience of kicking a badly wounded adult in the face, what a wonderful world this could be!
Forest Warrior is far from a perfect film. A stupid plot, cliche script, and mediocre acting all work against it. The saving grace is our man Chuck. The Forest Warrior is one of his most interesting characters, and it's well worth suffering through the drudgery of the rest of the movie just to see him beat up the bad guys while transmogrifying into bears and eagles and such. He can even bring people back from the dead, for crying out loud! For anyone who already suspects that Chuck is God, this will be your confirmation. If there's something missing in your life - a void that you've been unable to fill with knowledge, booze, drugs, and sex - then go forth to your local video store, and be baptized in the Church of Chuck! Amen.