Only the Strong
First off, many thanks to forum member Dibble, without whom this review would not be possible (she sent me a copy of the movie when I was unable to find it in town).
“Only The Strong” – 1993
Directed by: Sheldon Lettich; Written by: Sheldon Lettich & Luis Esteban
Starring: Mark Dacascos
IMDB Entry: http://us.imdb.com/Title?0107750
Selected Internet Sources: The Capoeria Dictionary
(Please note: I claim no special knowledge of Capoeria; I do not believe these sources to be “better” than any others – these were merely convenient. You wanna learn more? Do your own blasted research.)
There are moments in life, as in martial arts, when something so wondrous, so unexpected, happens that we are struck dumb by the sheer beauty and synergy of this demented universe. Such occurred to me while I was watching this rather … unique film. When the time comes, you will know where of I speak.
Is Capoeria a martial art? Is it a dance? Is it a martial art, disguised as a dance? Is it a dance disguised as a martial art disguised as a dance?
Hell if I know.
But – GOSH – it sure is PURTY.
This movie should have made Mark Dacascos a big star. If it had been a better film, it might have. Sharing the same kind of mixed-race beauty that graces Keanu Reeves and graced Brandon Lee, Dacascos is ripped, athletic and wholly edible in every bare-chested, glistening frame of this film. Okay, so he’s not a great actor. He’s better than Van Damme, prettier than Seagal and more acrobatic than Norris. This should have been his break-out performance – and it’s hard to determine exactly why it wasn’t.
There is a stupid rap-ish music video before the movie begins. Fast forward.
The movie opens in a small Brazilian village, where an American military officer, Louis Stevens (Dacascos) stares pensively out over a small river. In the town square, a group of shirtless, beautiful men prepare for some sort of dance. Music bounces, and then so do the men. Louis joins them in an exuberant display of acrobatic prowess, strength and grace. Capoeria is hard to describe if you haven’t seen it: lots of sweeping kick motions that fly from one foot to the other, flips, spins and rolls. It’s gorgeous to watch, and this scene, like all the Capoeria scenes, is well filmed, with judicious use of slow motion. It is powerful, impressively athletic and slightly irritating for someone so much like a blunt instrument as myself. “If I’m going to go to all this effort in a fight, perhaps I could just put the energy towards, oh, I don’t know – PUNCHING the guy?”
But this opening scene is just eye candy really, to establish the star as someone who can DO this stuff and to get the pace rolling. It’s a ritual exchange, a demo, a … well … a dance.
Cut to Miami, Florida.
Louis is home, discharged from the military. He seems lost; he visits what is apparently his old high school. It’s in horrible disarray: violent chaos rules the halls and the teachers cower in their class rooms, helpless and defeated. A lunchtime conversation with his old mentor Kerrigan leaves Louis defeated as well – he stalks off campus. Or he tries to, anyway. He interrupts someone whom I think is Jeffrey Anderson-Gunter playing the character “Philippe”(the cast of this movie is basically anonymous, people rarely being referred to by a name). Anyway, he interrupts “Jamaican Bad Dude #1” who is in the process of beating up his own little brother (“Shay” -- Roman Cardwell) because the kid hasn’t sold enough drugs or some such. Louis goes Capoeria on his behind, and the behinds of his henchmen.
This gets him noticed by the school principal, who immediately gives him the “12 worst students in the school” to teach Capoeria and give them discipline, self-respect, integrity -- you know, all those things that martial arts always mystically imparts on problem children.
Louis begins classes in a run-down firehouse, where he also lives.
Now we get to the meat of the movie.
The 12 kids show up at the firehouse. They are nicely multi-cultural, white, black, Hispanic and an Asian. They are also all male, which dates the movie. Made even two years later, there would have been at least one female in the group (probably Michelle Rodriguez ). Thankfully, these boys are well cast. They are all athletic. We don’t learn much about most of them (they are identified in the credits as “Capoeria Student #”. We get names for the aforementioned Shay, two white kids (Eddie and Donovan) and a Hispanic boy named Orlando. Shay and Eddie are “good-hearted punks”; Donovan is a musician; Orlando’s just screwed up.
Really, the casting of these characters (and the moment you see Orlando – Richard Coca – his character just screams “I’m the tortured waif who learns the true meaning of loyalty and friendship!”) is excellent. In particular, the boy who plays Donovan, Ryan Bollman, is charming, attractive and talented – he must have a dance background. Yes, you guessed it – he has deadmeat practically written on his forehead too.
Now the boys start to train. Nothing goes right for poor Louis at first, though he does get to show-off some lovely moves. Shay and Eddie have a spat; Louis trains Shay for one night in Capoeria. The next day, Shay kicks Eddie’s butt with his new skills. The other boys start to join in. Orlando leaves. Louis confronts him that night on a basketball court. There is a fight between Louis and random basketball punks; Louis wins. Orlando’s drug-baron cousin Silverio (Paco Christian Prieto) shows up.
HE KNOWS CAPOERIA TOO! WHAT A SHOCK!
There is a fight between Louis and Silverio; Louis loses. But the drug-baron tells Orlando to let Louis teach him (Orlando) the “basics” and he (Silverio) will show him how to be a real Capoeria-ist.
There is a brief interlude here while Louis is patched up by the “love interest” – a blond school teacher whom he used to date. Played by Stacey Travis, Dianna is nearly invisible and utterly unimportant. In fact, only the virtually silent “love interest” from Jeff Speakman’s “The Perfect Weapon” has less screen time or significance. Ignore her.
We get some training montages at the firehouse and at the beach during a field trip. This part is relentlessly appealing. Capoeria is such a distinctive thing, so beautiful when done right, that it becomes uplifting to watch. And the music is very good – though the instant reaction of most people when hearing the “Zoom Zoom” song is: “Isn’t that a car commercial?”.
Now things so bad for our heroes.
Silverio is offended by Louis. He tries to hurt Kerrigan; he does kill Donovan in a fire. Louis’ program is shut down. He goes after Silverio in revenge. Orlando is caught in the middle.
At about this point in the movie, I was becoming more familiar with Capoeria as a style (as portrayed in the film, anyway) and certain aspects of it were starting to jump out at me. For starters, there is some method to the madness. That back-and-forth bobbing dance step that opens up all the fights – called the ginga – might actually be useful. It’s a motion break, a pattern break, like faking or a well timed bob-and-weave. Since the attack can come from any angle, any step, any motion from within the ginga it adds surprise. Secondly, boy oh boy, you better be f-ing strong if you want to do this stuff in a fight. Also, you better be a gymnast. I have no idea how useful it would be for “real”; there are people out there strong enough, fast enough, smart enough, athletic enough to fight with it, I’m sure. Does that make this a martial art? I’m still torn on that answer. It certainly can be used in a martial way.
And gods above IT’S SO DAMN PRETTY.
I really admire much of the choreography of this movie. Whatever else, the people who arranged the Capoeria portion of the fights (Paco Christian Prieto and Joselito 'Amen' Santo) went to great and effective effort to place Capoeria in a good light, to showcase its strengths. Remember, this movie is pre-wires; the actual actors are doing these moves. Though I’m certain there are moments when he’s being replaced with a gymnast or stunt double Dacascos is to be highly commended for the amount of work he must have put in learning this art. He moves effortlessly and with skill through all his fight scenes, looking utterly comfortable and impressively athletic, nearly as athletic as the late, deeply lamented Brandon Lee. (On an odd note, Dacascos has a direct connection with Brandon through the role that killed Lee. Dacascos played Eric Draven in the TV series based on “The Crow”).
The general excellence of the Capoeria scenes makes the one lapse seem much, much worse than it is – it’s pretty bad all on its own. I’m morally certain that it’s a third guy, listed as the fight choreographer, who’s responsible.
Louis breaks up a car stripping operation of Silverio’s in an attempt to draw the drug-baron into a confrontation. This “fight scene” – and I use the term loosely – may be among the worst ever captured on film. Ugly, stupid, confused and senseless, in the context of the rest of the movie it leaves you scratching our head, thinking: “Who thought that was a good idea?”
FRANK DUX, THAT’S WHO.
Yes, Frank Dux – of “Bloodsport” fame, the fat white guy who claims to be a ninja and an ex-special agent – was the fight choreographer of this film. When I saw his name in the credits I started to giggle like a school girl; I was literally shaking with mirth. This is that moment I was talking about earlier, that moment of pure and radiant joy. Without dear, dear Frank what we have in “Only The Strong” is an essentially plot-less showcase of gorgeous men doing pretty things. With Frank, this movie is elevated to one of the great classics of the genre.
You see, it’s pretty obvious to tell what Frank laid his pudgy little hands on. The garage fight for one – he’s even in it, with his face covered – it’s bad. Chunks of the finale – yep, those suck too. Everything that isn’t Capoeria really. Or, put another way, the 10% of the fighting that looks slow and contrived – we owe it all to Frank. “Look at the difference,” we can say, “between actual athletes and porky, deluded demagogues. Look at how the guys with actual skills take what maybe isn’t a martial art and make it look dangerous and viable.” Then we can jump up and down and point derisively as Frank’s name scrolls past, like I did.
Back on screen, there is a final show-down between Louis and the drug-gangs (the Jamaican’s having allied with Silverio just to wrap up all the loose ends). The boys get to have there moment of glory; Louis wins that fight with Silverio. Silverio is sent to jail, with no apparent repercussions for anyone since the final scene is the Capoeria boys graduating joyfully from the reformed high school where Louis is now a teacher and presumably banging the blond chick.
So it ends as it began, with a demonstration of Capoeria. This is a good decision, since the power of this movie is the arts great visual flair. By co-incidence, a few days after watching this film I saw a documentary called “Martial Arts in the Movies”. While it should have really been called “CHINESE Martial Arts in the Movies” it provided me with the chance to directly contrast Capoeria with WuShu – its nearest equivalent in the more widely known arts. Superficially similar, at least as practiced on screen, Capoeria is actually much more impressive. It seems more powerful, more potentially lethal and useful, more brutal than flowery WuShu. I can credit the idea that there are street-fighters who use Capoeria. I just wish I could see it in real life, in an actual fight.
As to the movie itself, I enjoyed it as both eye candy and an interesting take on an interesting art. More than a little reminiscent of the 1986 film “Band of the Hand” it is dated in style and execution and in fact seems more like an 80’s film than one barely 10 years old. Dacascos went on from here (his third film) to be in, among other things already mentioned, “Double Dragon: The Movie”, “The Island of Dr. Moreau”, an episode of “CSI” and most notably “Brotherhood of the Wolf”.
Capoeria isn’t going to catch on in fictional fight scenes unless they are done with wires – and right now that aspect of the fight choreography world is pretty dominated by the Hong Kong guys and thusly WuShu. It looks brutally difficult to do properly and very, very easy to do badly.
But when they do it right, it’s BEAUTIFUL.
.....It was interesting that I saw the Spyderco C10 Civilian in the trailor. That's not a very common knife.
.....Well, I guess it's a good thing that the plot was weak, haha. But I will prolly get a copy of this movie for my girlfriend, she like the pretty looking guys (donno why she's with me, haha). And that kind of athletisicm is really a great intrest to her.
.....I suppose it would be hard to make an action movie using a martial art that was short and to the point, ugly/efficient and borderline geeky. Though, their was one scene in Hannibal Rising (the one with the fork), that was all of the previously mentioned things that was flippin' awesome I thought.
.....If you like pretty martial art flicks, you've prolly seen "Raiders of Buddhist Kung-Fu." It's been renamed a few times, and I'm not up on the current title it goes by in the dollar dvd section of walmart. But it was a great flick about a kid that begged to be allowed to train with some monks in a monestary and invented the tri-sectional staff just to whoop a guy with a pair of butterfly swords.
This is an interesting movie. However, it does not accurately contextualize Capoeria's rich history and tradition within the context of the African (Angola, Kongo, etc.) and Afro-Brazilian community. Additionally, the main characters are all non-Capoeiristas. Its only at the beginning and end where the viewer gets to see real Capoeira mestres in action.
The reviewer is quite accurate in critiquing the choreography. A good demonstration of Capoeira's use in a fight can be found in Lateef Crowder's appearance on The Protector (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=moReN9l2ap0 and Inmate 451 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kZryD0Ds2Bs
And yes this film is extemely light on story. An unfortunate trend in martial arts films outside of the epic (Fearless, Hero, Crouching Tiger, etc.).
Wushu doing Capoeira
Funny thing. Mark Dacascus is a European Wushu champ. that's pretty much where he was recognized. So its funny that you make a correlation between Wushu and Capoeira. I don't necessarily think they have much similarity other than a necessity for talent as an acrobat. of course that's only with a little more knowledge of Capoeira than it seems you have. Most don't know much about it other than Sport MA kids get most of their pretty kicks from either Wushu or Capoeira. Angola is a very traditional version of capoeira, not as fast or flash, but very potent when used right. Lots of knees and throws. revolucion seems to be the style they use primarily in this movie; I think Santos may have had a little mix. That's the more acrobatic kind.
I love Lateef Crowder from the zero gravity team. I could watch videos of that cat all day. ridiculous and he seems pretty tough from what I see of his stunt work.
I never saw prisoner 451 before. That fight was very slick and that's probably the best performance you'll see. Granted he was doing pretty good in the protector until Tony's character learned how to read the weaknesses in his attacks.
Yeah, technically a weak movie but very entertaining. If I saw it in the 5.50 bin at Walmart I would definitely buy it on spot.
Hey, did any of you guys see Mark Dacascos in Drive? Again not the best acting in the world and a really weak plot but some decent fight scenes.
i liked this movie and as for actually uses of capoeira here's a vid
YouTube - The Original Crazy 20 second Capoeira MMA Knockout!
is it practical? maybe not, but is it awesome? Hell's yeah