Only the Strong

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Almost every movie about martial arts has focused on karate or kung fu. Meanwhile, enthusiasts of capoeira, the graceful system of fight-dancing from Brazil, are frustrated. “When will our peculiar method of sort of beating each other up while also sort of dancing gain a foothold in Hollywood??” the capoeiristas cry. “Where is our Bruce Lee??”

They only say this because they did not see “Only the Strong,” a film from 1993 that is all about capoeira. I don’t know how they missed it. You’d think there would have been an announcement in the capoeira newsletter (Fight-Dancing Monthly). In any event, the movie is pretty stupid, but capoeira fans should take comfort in the knowledge that a lot of karate movies are stupid, too.

Capoeira’s Bruce Lee is Mark Dacascos, a kung fu and karate expert who had never done capoeira until he made “Only the Strong,” and who went on to appear in season 9 of “Dancing with the Stars.” Dacascos, a friendly-looking slab of meat with a broad smile, plays Louis Stevens, a Miami native who just spent four years in Brazil with the U.S. military. Since there weren’t any wars in Brazil while he was there, Louis had plenty of time to learn capoeira. The film’s opening scenes set the tone for what is to come: There’s going to be a lot of guys in loose-fitting white pants dancing and kicking the air around each other.

Released from his military service, Louis does what any other person would do: he goes back to his old high school. Not as a student, of course. That would be silly. He just kind of shows up and wanders around, like it’s the only possible place he might want to spend time, maybe to see if they need any odd jobs done. Louis is alarmed to find that his once-idyllic alma mater is now a seedy hotbed of graffiti, gang violence, and drug trafficking. Having spent four years in Brazil, he no longer has patience for any of those things.

While hangin’ out on campus, Louis breaks up a fight between a Jamaican drug dealer and a student, Shay (Roman Cardwell), who is evidently related to the Jamaican but is reluctant to carry on the family business of selling drugs at the high school. None of the school’s staff members seem to have considered calling the police or trying to get rid of the Jamaican themselves. Perhaps the Jamaican has an arrangement to sell his stuff on campus, like Pizza Hut does sometimes? Whatever the case may be, Louis fight-dances the crap out of the Jamaican, and suddenly the students are paying attention. It turns out that while the kids have no interest in learning or studying or behaving themselves, they respond enthusiastically to violence.

Since no teacher or administrator has ever accomplished anything at this school before, everybody wants to hire Louis to teach the kids self-discipline and motivation through capoeira. Everybody except for one jerky stick-in-the-mud teacher named Hector (John Fionte), that is. Hector says it would be insane to teach martial arts to kids who are already violent and ill-tempered. Hector has a pretty good point, actually. But the movie already decided he’s the bad guy — he’s even dating Louis’ high-school sweetheart who’s now a teacher at the school!!! — so he is shouted down in favor of the “let’s teach the bullies new ways of kicking people” system. It’s a lot like when Springfield bought the monorail.

So they round up the 12 biggest troublemakers at school, just the meanest bastards they can find, and send them with Louis to a dilapidated firehouse that’s been turned into a dojo. The kids don’t wanna learn no stupid dance-fighting, obviously; one of them, Orlando (Richard Coca), expresses this by pulling a knife on Shay. Louis disarms Orlando in a dazzling display of fight-dancing, then returns the knife to him after class. Why? To establish trust. It isn’t that Louis doesn’t think Orlando should have a knife at all. It’s that he doesn’t think he should try to stab other students with it during instruction time. Orlando respects this. He also respects being fight-danced into humiliation by the ex-soldier who used to go to school here and now teaches fight-dancing in an off-campus firehouse.

That is a common theme throughout the movie. Whenever someone is embarrassingly defeated with capoeira (which is the only way to be defeated by capoeira), that person is instantly humbled and grateful for the experience. For example, Louis spends a single afternoon teaching Shay some basic capoeira moves. The next day, Louis uses those moves to defeat Eddie (Christian Klemash), a meathead jock who’s been abusing Eddie regularly since forever. Eddie admires Shay after the hilarious defeat. He never retaliates or becomes embittered or grows hateful. To react in that manner would detract from the message of the movie, which is that most problems can be solved with violence, as long as it is carefully choreographed violence that involves backflips and Afro-Brazilian music. When will the quarrelsome nations of the Middle East learn this simple truth?

Now, Orlando the knife-fighter has a cousin, Silverio (Paco Christian Prieto), who does a lot of drug-dealing in this area. Silverio is displeased that Orlando is learning discipline and self-confidence when he should be spending his afternoon hours distributing poisons to children. Silverio’s hackles are particularly raised by the fact that Orlando is being instructed by someone who claims to be an expert in capoeira, when — you’ll never believe this — Silverio HIMSELF is ALSO a capoeira expert. What are the odds? What are the chances that a movie about a hero with a specific skill set would have a villain who turns out to have the exact same skill set? Silverio tells Orlando, in a highly menacing fashion, “We’re gonna find out real quick who’s the real capoeira “mestre” in this neighborhood!” You can tell that Silverio is serious because he uses the correct Portuguese term for “master.”

Silverio joins forces with the Jamaicans to overrun the high school, in retaliation for Louis trying to help the kids. They set some fires and kill a guy. The school board blames Louis for this, since he’s the one who suggested fighting back against the drug-dealers rather than simply letting them deal drugs on campus. Then, as the 11 surviving capoeira students watch, Louis fights Silverio and defeats him single-handedly. In accordance with the ancient capoeira principles that date back to the beginning of the movie, Silverio accepts his defeat and presumably agrees to stop selling drugs. He certainly does not retaliate with more violence, and the situation definitely does not escalate into a full-scale war.

By the way, those tough students are all really good at capoeira now, and somehow this also means that they are smart enough to graduate, and they graduate, and they demonstrate capoeira at the ceremony, and everyone loves it, and fight-dancing saves the day, again, just like in World War II.

— Film.com