I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Only the Strong

tn_onlythestrongLadies and gentlemen, I present to you the best find of my Back To School Special. Maybe THE SUBSTITUTE is better, but I’d already seen that one before so I knew what to expect. This is a surprisingly natural hybrid of the inspirational teacher movie with the American martial arts star vehicle. It embraces the necessary corniness of both genres and seems a little more sincere about the turning kids around aspect than THE SUBSTITUTE does. And it came out in ’93, three years earlier.

It stars American IRON CHEF host Mark Dacascos and it’s directed by long-time Van Damme collaborator Sheldon Lettich. This is his third directational work after LIONHEART and DOUBLE IMPACT. Dacascos plays Louis Stevens, a peace time Green Beret who fell in love with the martial art capoeira while stationed in Brazil. He was apparently some kind of troublemaking kid until a good teacher named Mr. Kerrigan (EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE sidekick Geoffrey Lewis) turned him around and convinced him to join the military. Once he gets out he returns to the school to see if there’s any way he can work there and try to make a difference in other young people’s lives. The school is a hellhole and he pretty much gets tossed out on his ass.

Only the StrongBut as he’s leaving he sees the Haitian lieutenant of a drug gang causing trouble and ends up getting in a fight with the guy, using acrobatic capoeria kicks and flips. Kerrigan sees how the deadbeat students’ eyes light up when they see a guy kicking ass like that, and he gets an idea.

Long story short, they start a daring new program at the school where Louis takes the 12 biggest troublemakers in the school out to an abandoned building and teaches them how to kick ass. Some of these kids are real dorky, like characters from a later ELM STREET sequel. For example there’s a white kid (Ryan Bollman, BLACK DAWN) who wears sunglasses and plays shitty dance music on a big boombox. These goofballs have the nerve to laugh at Louis when he starts playing Brazilian drum music and doing the dance moves that make up the foundation of this fighting style. But then the boombox guy takes the tape home and does his own remix of it. (Bonding.)

Dacascos has a weird appeal in this movie. Like now he’s a cross between a badass and a pretty boy – he’s got muscles and very convincing moves but his face looks like a GQ model. And morseo than now he has a quiet, kind of boyish voice. It makes him seem like kind of a nerd, which totally works for this character. He has to struggle a little to win over the kids.

The teaching part of the movie is enough to make it enjoyable, but there’s a big turning point scene that completely sold me on this as a ’90s action gem. Orlando (Richard Coca, LONE STAR) is the one student in the class who refuses to participate, and Louis really needs to get through to him because he knows he’s been working for his crimelord cousin Silverio (Paco Christian Prieto, who fought Van Damme in the swimming pool in LIONHEART). Louis tracks down Orlando on a basketball court outside of school, trying to win him over like Belushi did that one kid in THE PRINCIPAL. But Silverio and his henchmen are there and try to make Louis leave.

Of course, Louis ends up busting out the capoeira and beats up all of the henchmen. Silverio is impressed so he tries to hire him to train his men, but of course he refuses. So Silverio – who by the way did I mention happens to be a capoeira master himself – fights Louis.

After this first fight Louis is bloodied and beaten. A storm is brewing in the sky. Thunder explodes in the background as the camera dramatically zooms in on Silverio and he declares that Louis isn’t good enough to train his men after all. Orlando will learn the basics from Louis and then come to him to complete his training.

I try not to use this term because I don’t want to wear it out, but… fucking awesome. What a scene. Nice operatic filmatism, several good fights, a great heavily accented (and pony-tailed) villain, and an actual dramatic twist. The stakes are much higher because now Louis not only has to win over the kid through capoeira, but worry what he’s gonna use it for.

Have you ever noticed that capoeira has all the vowels in it except u? That’s because there’s no ‘you’ in capoeira. Or something.

Unlike THE SUBSTITUTE this one doesn’t keep the action to the school, but that’s okay, because this one isn’t as school-teacher-themed. He doesn’t even teach them at the school anyway. He does drive a school bus instead of a car, that’s pretty cool. I laughed that he was driving it for their field trip, but it’s even better when he keeps driving around in it afterwards. I kind of doubt the school district okayed that. And when the gang decides it’s time for war they bust into the school, make a big pile of desks and things and start a bonfire using an American Government book as the kindling. (No wonder Silverio has a restraining order to keep him off of school grounds.)

When Louis decides to fight back he puts on his camouflage. This is the movie communicating with us, sending us a message:

MOVIE: Remember, he’s not just a martial artist, he was in the military too.
AUDIENCE: A ha! So that’s why he has the skills to sneak around and take on a bunch of trained fighters.
MOVIE: Exactly.
AUDIENCE: And him putting on the camouflage reminds us of that fact.
MOVIE: That’s the idea.
AUDIENCE: Well, thank you for that.
MOVIE: No problem man.
AUDIENCE: By the way I really enjoy your work, you’re awesome man.
MOVIE: Thanks, that means alot to me man.
AUDIENCE: No, really though.
MOVIE: It means alot.
(awkward silence)
AUDIENCE: Well, see ya later.
MOVIE: Yeah, see ya.

In a scene reminiscent of Dolph’s ARMY OF ONE Louis attacks Silverio’s men at a chop shop. It’s a good sequence but by far the best part is when a welder comes after him in full welding gear. They’re having a martial arts fight and the guy is trying to burn him with the welding torch. And Louis seems to forget that the welding equipment is armor and not the guy’s actual skin, so he punches him hard in the mask, hurting his fist.

Great scene, and even better when you see the credits and realize the welder was Frank Dux, the real guy who Van Damme played in BLOODSPORT. He’s also the fight choreographer for this one.

Another supporting actor worth pointing out is Silverio’s Haitian henchman, the guy Louis fights at the school at the beginning. I noticed it was Jeffrey Anderson-Gunter, who I like to call “the guy who looks kind of like Richard Pryor in MARKED FOR DEATH.” I tried to find a picture of him from that movie so I could have a graphic that says “the guy who looks kind of like Richard Pryor in MARKED FOR DEATH,” but I couldn’t find one. What I found was much better:
anderson-gunter

I highly recommend ONLY THE STRONG to fans of the old Van Dammes and those types of movies. It’s a real solid example of the genre but also stands out because of the corny school aspects and because it’s as far as I know the only movie completely based around capoeira. Lettich co-wrote it with Luis Esteban, who never wrote another movie, but was transportation co-ordinator on SOUL PLANE. I’m sure he’s pretty good at coordinating, but maybe he should get back to co-writing.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Thursday, October 1st, 2009 at 10:07 pm and is filed under Action, Martial Arts, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

29 Responses to “Only the Strong”

  1. Great review Vern, I don’t even care if I don’t get to see the movie, your review was enough.
    (awkward silence)
    OK then, I gots to go. See ya round sometime.

  2. There is a movie with Dacascos called “Only the Brave”. I was hoping it was a follow up but its not. Its “The first motion picture of the heroic all-Nisei Regiment of WWII and inspired by their sacrifices in combat and memories of loved ones back home in America”. Cool.

  3. cool find,

    i have watched half of this a few years back before i was leaving to a party. Had to leave in the middle and always wanted to see the rest, but never saw it again. But if it has your approval i might have to search better for it now ;)

  4. Best review in a while, Vern. I’ve always heard people talk up Only the Strong as a hidden gem – I found a cheap copy on DVD and actually bought it blind, and you know what? They were right. Definitely one of the best of the 90s actioners. Only fault is I think the final fight is a bit anticlimactic (it doesn’t help that the end is given away in the trailer!)

  5. Paco Christian Prieto would merit serious consideration if I made a list of All Time Top Ten Villains… I mean, he just nails everything about it. I love that in that first scene, he’s so convincing in beating down Louis that I legitimately feared Our Hero was going to have to go all ‘Special Forces’ on his ass and Win Without Capoeira (and, instead, guns) … I’m a sucker for that over-the-top sneering arrogance, but I think he’s one of the very best. I even thought to try and track down one of the many telenovelas he’s apparently made a career out of, but my gringo ass never got anywhere with it.

  6. Cool – I remember seeing this ages ago and loving it, good to know it’s not one of those movies that make you think “what the fuck was I thinking, liking this?”. Wonder how Class of 1999 holds up?
    Vern, I know it doesn’t really fit in this back to school run (it’s completely missing the action element,) but have you seen Laurent Cantet’s The Class? It’s an absolutely awesome movie, and very badass in its own way.

  7. I’ve said this before, but I think it bears repeating: This is a movie that could only have come out in the early 90s. No other era had such a goofy, innocent aura of positivity, activism, and multiculturalism. There were a few years there when everybody thought they were Duane Wayne from A Different World. They wore Africa pendants and purple jeans and round eyeglasses and talked about stopping the violence and cleaning up the community. Then The Chronic dropped, MC Hammer put on a black hoodie for the cover of The Funky Headhunter, and it was all over. We all embraced ignorance and materialism, and we never looked back. It makes this movie look so out-of-date it might as well be a Frankie and Annette beach party movie. And that’s why it rules. It’s like if pre-“Punks Jump Up To Get Beat Down” Brand Nubian remade Fists of Fury.

  8. Its funny how reviews on this site can bring up memories of movies I dont even remember watching from when i was a kid.
    But yeah I remember enjoying this one when i was a young lad and trying that awkward dance/fighting style in my living room with fairly awful results.
    Not that I will miss you reviewing it but im kinda surprised that Dangerous Minds didn’t make the back to school month, it was probably the most popular i remember from the 90’s. And Coolio. I mean not since Leprechaun 3:Leprechaun In Da Hood, had Coolios involvement in a movie been so prolific.
    The icing on the cake for this month’s theme would have had to go to High School High though. You all remember the one where the dude had micro machines running around his hair/race track in the trailer. Im pretty sure from what i remember it was absolutely horrible but it would have been funny to see all the influences from these movies you watched this month all spoofed/satired/ruined.
    trailer here:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oLf2PusBhFQ

  9. Vern, now you have to review Brotherhood of the Wolf.

  10. He already did. Check Vern’s Reviews of the Films of Cinema.

  11. Majestyk – you hit the nail on the head re: the death of positivity and the embracing of thuggishness. I guess I’m guilty of contributing to this as I’m currently playing “50 Cent: Blood on the Sand” for the PS3 (50 Cent vs. Arab Terrorists = I can’t believe this thing exists). Btw – since Vern’s already working on the collected works of Mark Dacascos, is it too much to hope he’ll do a review of Dacascos on this season’s Dancing with the Stars? I actually think alot of people on this site would enjoy that show, no joke.

  12. Consider this added to my queue. I also spotted a buddy movie Dacascos did with Kadeem Hardison in ’97 called “Drive” where,

    Toby Wong (Mark Dacascos) is a martial arts superhero, thanks to a bio-energy module planted in his chest. He tries to sell the device to a U.S. firm and angers a rival Chinese company, which sends its goons after him. When Toby takes Malik Brody (Kadeem Hardison) hostage and uses his car for a getaway, the two become unlikely buddies in this high-energy fight picture, which also features a charming Brittany Murphy in a small role.

    Added as well…

  13. OSLord – Drive is freaking sweet. Awesome and inventive action sequences, good pace and humor, etc.. BTW – Brittany Murphy’s actually in it alot – she’s kind of like the Pesci to Dacascos and Hardison’s Gibson and Glover. Between this and her awesome performance in Prophecy 2, she could have been the unlikely queen of DTV.

  14. By all rights, Brittany Murphy’s character should have been the Jar Jar of that movie, but she pulled it off. When she gleefully bounced up and down after machine-gunning that goon back at the motel, she was just cuter than a bucket of bunnies. My only disappointment with Drive was that she didn’t show up at the end to save the day, possibly by “driving” a car through the wall of the inexplicably space-themed nightclub at just the right moment.

  15. “It’s like if pre-”Punks Jump Up To Get Beat Down” Brand Nubian remade Fists of Fury.”

    Perfect metaphor, Mr. M. That’s exactly the kind of on-my-level insight that keeps me coming back to read these comments. That, and Vern’s “(awkward silence) Well see ya later.” I was laughing so hard at work I had to pretend I was coughing.

  16. I was worried nobody was going to get that one. Glad it worked for you. I was pretty proud of it.

  17. This sounds strangely like that Antonio Bandaras movie, Take The Lead – only with capoeira instead of ballroom dancing. I’m sold.

  18. What about Samuel L.Jacksons “187” ??

  19. Drive (and Dacascos in general) is pretty awesome. Slightly cheesy premise, but really cool action and fun antics. I especially love the part where he has to fight the stun baton guys while wearing his boots on his hands.

  20. Drive! Shit! I forgot all about that movie. I think I have it on the same tape as Mean Guns, or maybe The Immortals… Either way it’s awesome.

    Mr. M: I think you have a valid point about The Chronic, and how it changed the hopeful vibe (Nevermind was also big for that), but at least all that early 90’s West Coast had a debt to 70’s soul and the occasional tinge of social responsibility. It was really Puffy, Grand Master P, and those other clowns who made it all about stupid excess and ruined mainstream hip hop forever. At least from my point of view.

  21. The Chairman’s Nephew is a fucking ACTION STAR?!?!

    Sometimes life just gives and gives.

    Oh, and:

    “Dwayne… Cleophus… Wayne.”

    “For his sake, I hope that’s a typo.”

    -very special hunted-by-drug-dealers episode of A Different World.

    Actually, it was a two-parter, and probably could qualify for some kind of inclusion in this little themed batch of reviews. Ron and Wayne even had a couple action moments. Probably inspired Bad Boys.

    Where would one find a thing like that?

    Sincere thanks, Majestyk. I really haven’t thought enough about A Different World in recent years. Now I recall that my dad, a giant science geek, bought flip-up sunglasses for his bifocals because he thought Dwayne Wayne was cool.

    Damn, that show hurtled of the rails.

  22. I fuckin’ knew it! For years i’ve had a love affair with this amazing movie, and anytime i’m looking for a flick to watch I sift through a Vern Review. Man, I hate to sound like a ass kissing an ass, but, In Vern We trust.

  23. Nice review, Vern. You have the ability to persuade me to look up these movies that I would never consider otherwise. I’ve got this one playing on Youtube right now — they have the whole thing in installments. (Not that I condone that sort of thing, but it’s the responsibility of the studio lawyers to capoeira the pirates, not mine.)

    Hey, that’s Geoffrey Lewis as the obligatory cynical-burnout teacher who tells him not to bother. (He’s what Fametracker would call a “hey-it’s-that-guy.” Is Fametracker even still around?) You MUST have this character in your “idealist-reforms-school” film. Oops, didn’t mean to liveblog the movie.

    But before I go, I’d like to comment on what you said about the hopeful vibe of the early Nineties. Thanks for the memories, I’d forgotten it was like that. We got rid of Bush Sr. after 12 straight years of those guys. I remember throwing a party specifically to celebrate this event. Everything was all neon colors and vests and round sunglasses. Young MC, Tone Loc, etc. The future looked bright. And then Bill let us down and that fake-alternative rock took hold and Cobain died and Friends happened and my girlfriend gained weight and the hangovers got worse.

    Meanwhile, back on Youtube, we’ve got the Dirty-Harry-whiny-liberal. “Death squads” – what a pussy. If we didn’t have death squads, they’d be eating borscht in El Salvador. Hey, that blonde is a total Elizabeth Banks lookalike. Sorry, did it again. It’s your own damn fault.

    I did have to look up Dwayne Wayne. I was busy learning all about scotch whisky in those days, and I was not up on my sitcoms. Especially sitcoms about kids and hugs.

    On to part 3 of Only the Strong! Goddammit Vern, I got stuff to do. I hate you.

  24. — but I hate you with a grudging respect. Actually, I don’t hate you, I like you. I just blame you for enticing me to watch silly movies on Youtube.

    Wow, my last comment was long. I hope you all had the sense to ignore it and use the time to make the world a better place. Vern, you can charge me rent if I’m using up your blog space and electricity and stuff.

  25. thanks Frank. I can’t take credit for the comments about the hopeful vibe of the ’90s, though. That was a great point by Mr. Majestyk that I wish I would’ve thought of myself. All I can take credit for is the one about the connection between MARKED FOR DEATH and the “Black or White” video, but nobody seems to be as excited about that one as me.

  26. Don’t sell yourself short, Vern. It’s just that no one’s ready to deal with the implications of the guy from Marked For Death being in the “Black Or White” video. It’s like when Galileo postulated that the earth was not the center of the universe and they locked his ass up in a tower.

  27. Oops. I feel like I made some kind of fox pass, mixing up the comments with the actual review.

    Well, you still made me waste time watching two-thirds of a silly movie on Youtube, a movie I’d never have heard of if not for you. That’s gotta count for something in this life. You have influence!

  28. Today I noticed Mark Dacascos is “following” me on the “twitter,” which is a great honor. I hope I do a good job. I wonder if I can get Geoffrey Lewis to follow me too.

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