It’s February and everything sucks right now, so it’s time to unwind with February Fisticuffs – a punchy look at some of the best, worst and most average boxing, kung fu and martial arts movies.
Those who’ve wondered what Dangerous Minds would’ve been like if it’d featured capoeira and the Chairman from Iron Chef America instead of poetry and Michelle Pfeiffer will find their answer in Only the Strong. Sheldon Lettich’s 1993 martial arts film not only lacks any and all Coolio songs, it features the Afro-Brazilian fighting style without apology.
For those not “in the know,” capoeira is a martial arts style originating in Brazil in or around the 16th century. It combines dance and rhythm with kicks and spins to comprise an elegance that can really throw an opponent, especially if an opponent is taken in by the bounding beat of the berimbau. And really, who wouldn’t be?
Mark Dacascos stars as Green Beret Louis Stevens. He’s been stationed in Brazil, where he’s learned the martial arts style of capoeira. He returns home to Miami, where he visits his old high school and finds the place overrun by drugs and crime and angry dudes. Stevens’ former teacher Mr. Kerrigan (Geoffrey Lewis) is at his wit’s end and wants the former student to help.
Stevens handles some drug dealers with his badass skills and catches the eye of administrators, who tap him to teach the Worst Kids in School™ a little capoeira. He reluctantly agrees and struggles to find a way to get through to them. His work is made even more difficult by Silverio (Paco Christian Prieto), who runs the gangs and has deep influence at the school.
Only the Strong is typical early 1990s fare, with a Saved by the Bell approach to school diplomacy. Things are bad in an over-the-top way, especially when Silverio and his gang take to the school and start trashing the joint. The drug-dealing bad guy has his hooks in his younger cousin Orlando (Richard Coca), so a tug-of-war commences.
Stevens clashes with all the right forces, with the school’s authority figures not seeing the value in his capoeira and the gangsters wanting his head on a platter faster than anyone can shout “allez cuisine!” These conflicts pull the protagonist between two extremes. On one hand, he wants to give up and go back to Brazil. On the other hand, someone has to think of the kids.
It should be noted that Dacascos is the real deal when it comes to martial arts. The Hawaiian-born badass is the son of a martial arts instructor and has studied a number of specific disciplines. He learned capoeira from Mestre Amen Santo, who choreographs and features in Only the Strong.
Dacascos’ skill blossoms from the ginga, which keeps him moving and generates a base with which to throw a series of low kicks. His character teaches the ginga to the disinclined students and they laugh it off, at least at first. The “rocking back and forth” becomes all the more beneficial when Stevens demonstrates how can he use it to open an opponent up for a serious ass-kicking.
In cinematic terms, it doesn’t take long for the Worst Kids in School™ to go from standing around with their arms crossed to adding a series of feints to their ginga. One goes from bully to sympathetic bro in a few minutes, while another turns the winning roda soundtrack into his own form of modern music.
Only the Strong is unique enough to push past its many clichés, but it’s still a really cheesy movie. Silverio and Stevens battle it out for the souls of the children in a pulsating final fight and everything somehow seems okay in the end because capoeira, like poetry, is its own reward.