Only the Strong (1993)
Only the Strong (1993)

Genre: Martial Arts Running Time: 1 hr. 39 min.

Release Date: August 27th, 1993 MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: Sheldon Lettich Actors: Mark Dacascos, Stacey Travis, Geoffrey Lewis, Paco Christian Prieto, Todd Susman, Richard Coca, Ryan Bollman, Phyllis Sukoff

 


 

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he opening shots portray the defying of gravity (with a retention of welcome realism) and the clear incorporation of rhythmic, dancelike moves for the lesser-known martial arts form of capoeira. Like many fast-paced fighting styles, the flamboyant maneuvers (meant to distract opponents) work quite nicely in the medium of film, lending to visual excitement, intensity, and opportunities for over-the-top theatrical choreography (its effectiveness in actual combat is largely debatable). “Only the Strong” may in fact be the only semi-mainstream motion picture to use the Brazilian self-defense philosophy, which is admittedly difficult to take seriously as showdowns begin with moderately impractical, somewhat comical posturing and swaying.

Ex-Green Beret Louis Stevens (Mark Dacascos) returns from a tour in South America fighting cartels, fed up with the actuality of battling bureaucracy instead. Back in his hometown of Miami, a visit to his old high school reveals rampant drug use, the possession of weapons, poor neighborhoods and family structures corrupting educational potential, and bars installed in the stairwells to prevent regular, would-be jumpers from killing themselves. With the help of teacher Mr. Kerrigan (Geoffrey Lewis), Louis proposes training students in the Brazilian kung fu capoeira, to channel wasted energy and perhaps give wayward youths some discipline. Although the other educators believe that teaching violence to violent kids can only spell disaster, Louis’ plan goes into effect by opening a dojo at an abandoned firehouse.

Twelve students – the most unredeemable, incorrigible misfits, delinquents, and screw-ups – are selected to participate in Stevens’ class. At first, the kids make fun of the peculiar movements, the barefooted stances, and inextricable linkage to Latin music beats – but in time, they adopt the idea of learning to kick ass and follow instructions. Even the most uncooperative member, Orlando Aliveres (Richard Coca), eventually accepts the sessions. But his vicious, towering cousin Silverio (Paco Christian Prieto, full of grimaces and glares), himself raised in the unforgiving barrios of Rio de Janeiro with capoeira as his ally, leads the toughest gang in the area, distributing cocaine citywide and intent on preventing the competition from influencing his cohorts. His verbal exchanges lack sincerity, but he represents a very real turf war threat to the students, the faculty, and the school.

Dacascos can’t quite deliver his lines with Schwarzenegger-like attitude or satisfactory levels of awe-inspiring enthusiasm, and his dialogue is unfortunately devoid of strong, clever comebacks. The students, however, bring a certain respectable level of authenticity to the scenario, especially since they’re scripted to resist, rather naturally, authority figures and anything that resembles tutelage. And fleshing out the interactions are some light romance (with Stacey Travis’ teacher Dianna Walker), a rockin’ soundtrack, and plenty of creative hand-to-hand skirmishes. Potent themes of trust, family ties, retaliation, the inescapable feeling of restrictive upbringings, facing insurmountable odds, and the power of martyrdom are subsequently drowned out by the thrilling idea of someone sticking up for underdogs (all done to better affect in “The Karate Kid”) and a rambunctious, fire-lit, nighttime machete face-off in the sand. It wraps up neatly with a touch of silliness, but, ultimately, as an action-packed demonstration of capoeira, “Only the Strong” is wholly proficient.

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10