Fridays on Demand: Only the Strong

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[This week’s Fridays on Demand is a day late due to technical difficulties with my internet connection.  Apologies!]

By request: This week’s Friday’s on Demand comes from 1993, the martial arts film Only the Strong by Sheldon Lettich starring Mark Dacascos and Mexican actor/producer Paco Christian Prietto.  Only the Strong lies firmly in the mainstream of the B-movie kung fu tradition of the 1990’s, with a small budget and cast, a cookie-cutter plot, and low production values.

Sheldon Lettich’s movies hold places as the B of the B-list films.  With a series of flops like Lionheart, Double Impact, Legionnaire, and Russkies the question to ask about Only the Strong is not, “What is good or bad?” but “What is so charming about such a bad movie?”

Mark Dacascos and Paco Prietto are both great athletes, stunt men, and martial artists.  Neither of their performances are painful to watch, but that is the kindest thing to say about the acting in this film.  Veteran supporting actor Geoffrey Lewis plays Kerrigan, the aging teacher who changed Louis’ (Dacascos) life for the better years back.

The film strikes out at a chance for a strong characteristic introduction.  Luis stands at the banks of the Amazon river in pristine military uniform, and his friends call him into a capoeira circle where Louis flips, kicks, and dances.  There is a very nice touch as the music of capoeira follows the travel montage back to Louis’ home gives a flavor of the spirit he brings home.  But we never really learn what Louis was doing in Brazil, how he felt about it, and what it had done to change him beyond teaching him martial arts.  Louis’ adult life is pretty much a moot point, and he has returned to his high school that defines him.

Louis beats up some bullies, (the same characters who are one hit wonders in the first fight and mysteriously know Capoeira by the final fight sequences) and instantly the staff wants to hire him to teach martial arts to the troubled youth of the school.  The tough gang kids hate it, but Louis wins them over, and then goes on to defeat the local gang members.  The writing gets very terrible here, because Louis shows up and no one understands or has seen his exotic Capoeira skills.  But the local gang leader turns out to be a Capoeira meistre (master) who defeats Louis easily in their first encounter, and the final scenes show a lot of the gang members familiar with the customs, chanting and clapping the traditional rhythms for their leader.  It seems like the thugs might have at least learned about the martial art of their master at some point…

Despite obvious flaws as technical art, Only the Strong is an enjoyable action movie.  Part of that comes from its historical context.  Between Kung Fu, Shogun, and the Karate Kid franchise, America had become familiar with mainstream Japanese and Chinese martial arts by 1990 or so.  The 1990’s saw an expansion of the action film to explore a broader world of martial arts.  The Best of the Best series tackled Tae Kwon Do, and Only the Strong featured the Americas only widely  accepted indigenous martial art (though examinations of contemporary histories indicate that the Delaware speaking Indians had a distinct grappling style to compliment their weapons-based fighting arts).  This was a fresh change from the ninja and karate flicks filling theaters.  The martial art is beautiful to watch, and there is a musical element to the style so there is almost always a catchy beat and a reason for it, as opposed to the sudden appearance of the spirits of Japanese drum bands past.

The movie does touch on one fundamental truth that bears repeating in as many films as it fits into.  The speech of the at-risk children is the language of despair.  This violent, poor, and predatory world is all that there is and ever will be, so it is a waste of time to try for something better.  Martial arts outreach programs have been greatly effective in schools.  I have long been a fan of Chuck Norris for his work in this department.  Louis teaches the children Capoeira, but the most important thing that he teaches them is possibility.  The kids see an incredible skill, and they reject it in the spirit of sour grapes.  They think they never can learn, or that learning cannot help them, so they refuse to try.  But one taste of success earned by hard work leads to another, and so forth.  The film does not openly address the rampant problem of broken families as a contributor to delinquency and violence.  The dojo, or in this case the meistre’s circle, offers a substitute family that is much less destructive than gang life, but still protects, encourages, helps, and challenges one another.  True, or genuine martial arts focus on cultivating strength within one’s self and the well-being of your fellow students, the antithesis of predatory gang violence.

Aficionados of martial arts films will find the fight choreography a little odd here.  Traditional punching and kicking is much easier to fake for the camera than back-flips, cartwheels, and immense wheel kicks.  So fights take place with a little more distance than many other films.  Frank Dux, the inspiration for the movie Bloodsport, is the fight choreographer, and while he is a famous martial artist there is a big difference between his arrangement of Capoeira techniques and the combinations used by actual meistres of the sport.  A little more authenticity could have gone a long way, but the fights are still pretty and entertaining.

If you have a chance to rent Only the Strong or to pick up a used copy, it is a little dated but still worth your time.

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