Director: Sheldon Lettich
Writer: Sheldon Lettich, Luis Esteban
Cast: Mark Dacascos, Geoffrey Lewis, Paco Christian Prieto, Stacey Travis, Richard Coca, Roman Cardwell, Jeffrey Anderson-Gunter
There’s a moment in 1999’s Zoolander where fashion designer Mugatu, played by Will Ferrell, leans towards a colleague during a climactic (and cheesy) showdown and blurts, “they’re break-dance fighting.” As performance elements, dancing and fighting for the screen are more closely related than at first glance. Dance-like rhythm was a style marker in Chang Cheh’s fight choreography for his Shaw Bros. films. (And Jackie Chan might say the same about his own work). Revered action stars from Cheng Pei Pei to Michelle Yeoh and Moon Lee relied on their years of dance training in lieu of formal martial arts experience to perform their early action film roles. Regardless of whether “dance fighting” is an actual thing -- it’s not! -- those who lurk in the DTV shadows most likely got their introduction to it with 1993’s Only the Strong.
Following a tour of duty in Brazil, a United States Green Beret named Lewis Stevens (Dacascos) is honorably discharged, and then returns to his hometown of Miami, Florida. As one is want to do after a few years of military service, he visits his former high school teacher and mentor, Mr. Kerrigan (Lewis) on the job. What he sees shocks him: kids are carrying weapons, ignoring authority, getting into fights, and even dealing that sweet Bolivian marching powder. When he encounters an escalating conflict between a student and his drug-dealing older sibling (Anderson-Gunter) on school grounds, Lewis is prodded into action and shows off capoeira skills that both astound and intrigue.
Following the incident, Kerrigan goes to his peers during a teachers meeting with a proposal. Since none of their efforts to discipline or teach the students has worked, he wants to hand over the classroom reigns to Lewis for an off-campus course in capoeira. Despite some initial hesitation among the group, Kerrigan wins their approval and is cleaning up a shithole firehouse with Lewis before you can say, “weird subject matter for a montage.”
The dozen students assigned to the course are as bad as their reputations. They blare music from ghetto blasters, they wield furious mullets, and they even wear baggy pants! After a short period of adjustment, though, they’ve gone from scowling to dancing (in capoeira, the ginga). From pulling knives, to pulling each other off the ground without further incident after accidentally kicking each other in the face. From dressing like punks to dressing like male models in a Banana Republic catalog photo for casual beach wear. (Capri pants will never look tough, but at least the students look comfortable wearing them). For the moment, Lewis’s methods are working.
Old habits die hard, though. The most unpredictable of the students, Orlando (Coca), is having a difficult time walking away from the easy money that his uncle, Silverio (Prieto) provides to him through work at the local chop shop. Try as he might, Lewis has no luck in talking sense into Silverio either, despite the slumlord’s admiration for his capoeira skills. As posturing turns to violence, how will Lewis protect his new students? What about his old high school flame turned forward-thinking teacher, Dianna (Travis)? Or his mentor, Kerrigan, who’s a tough old bastard, but let’s face it, shouldn’t be messing with gangbangers? Better yet, how will Lewis protect the sanctity of the classroom and alternative teaching methods for future generations? Yes -- there’s that much riding on this.
Few chopsocky villains have taken so much interest in accelerating urban decay in his city as the treacherous Silverio. A cross between Vega from Street Fighter II and pro wrestling’s Razor Ramon (even down to the colorful vests), he’s a despicable gang leader and capoeira badass without any redeemable qualities. Prieto didn’t do much after this other than a role in Street Law (we’ll cover it), but he’s terrific here. The character of Silverio is pretty much exactly what you want in a good b-movie chopsocky villain: he says ridiculous things, acts like a prick all the time, and dresses like a total asshole. Great hair, too!
While I’ll stop short of calling Lewis Stevens dry toast, he’s surprisingly wholesome despite a few allusions to a troubled past. The educational-do-gooder-as-action-hero isn’t yet a tried and true formula and I wasn’t totally convinced by the cultural sea change illustrated here. That’s not to say that I find selfless people insufferable, but as someone who spends too much time drinking really good scotch and making poor life decisions, I sometimes have difficulty relating to them. Dacascos still gives it his all, playing the hard-ass when the kids need it, dispensing humor where appropriate, and showing off excellent form in every fight scene.
At the helm is frequent Jean-Claude Van Damme collaborator, Sheldon Lettich. I’ve always found his technique to be solid but unremarkable, and his third film is no different. He gives the fight choregraphy space to breathe and mixes in cool camera angles, overuses montages (including the requisite “progress through cartwheels” one), and juggles a lot of characters and plot points. Where he really succeeds is in the pace. I recall being underwhelmed when I first saw this movie as a teenager, but I was struck by his observance of one of the great unspoken “rules” of action cinema where something compelling -- plot development, humorous moment, fight scene, etc. -- happens every 15 minutes.
(Author’s Note: This review was finalized before learning of the passing of actor Geoffrey Lewis. He was great in this film, just as he was in so many other movies. I really do love him in everything and will miss his presence on the screen).
As Dacascos’s first real lead role, it’s easy to see why he’s had such a long and prolific career. On the same token, it’s a bit puzzling to me why he didn’t become a bigger star -- he’s charismatic, humorous, and a terrific on-screen fighter. All of those traits are on various degrees of display in Only the Strong, and despite the Disney-esque saccharine moments and plenty of 90s cliches, it’s an enjoyable film with interesting characters and a good redemption story. Recommended.