Be honest, if you were born before the 1990’s, “Only the Strong” was the first time you ever saw Capoeira in a movie. Largely overlooked during its initial release in 1993, “Only the Strong” has steadily accumulated tons of love over the years for being the first major martial arts film to focus upon the Afro-Brazilian art of Capoeira, as well as marking the point where the phenomenal Mark Dacascos first caught the attention of martial arts fans across the globe. Sure, the film is a tad on the cheesy side, but after catching a glimpse of the world-class capoeiristas in the opening scenes of the film, whose art makes literal the common observation of martial arts being “dance-like”, you’re just not going to care!
Making his first-leading man outing in “Only the Strong” is the sensational Mark Dacascos in the role of Capoeira mestre (teacher) Louis Stevens. Even if you knew going in that Dacascos had no formal background in Capoeira prior to his involvement with this film, you’d be hard-pressed to rank him as a novice. Although a life-long martial arts practitioner, Dacascos was as much a newcomer to Capoeira as the very audience members who would see him twirling around in the exotic dancing maneuvers that make up the art, but none of that shows in his performance.
Paco Christian Prieto tackles the part of the diabolical gang leader Silverio Oliveras, himself a powerful Capoeira mestre who reigns supreme over the drug trade in Miami. Silverio is pure sleaze made into a man, a domineering bully who accepts nothing less than getting his way at all times. The combination of Prieto’s baritone voice merged with his muscular chassis alone makes him intimidating, with his dynamic Capoeira skills seemingly unbecoming of a man his size. Richard Coca portrays Silverio’s young cousin Orlando, who, much to his cousin’s chagrin, slowly begins to turn from the life of crime he’s destined for after coming under the mentorship of Louis. Rounding out the supporting cast is Stacey Travis as Louis’ adolescent flame Dianna, while Geoffery Lewis portrays Louis’ former high school history teacher, Mr. Kerrigan.
Following a tour of military service in the heart of Brazil, former Green Beret and Capoeira mestre, Louis Stevens, returns to his former high school in Miami, Florida to find it a cesspool of violence, crime, and drug abuse; there’s even a prison-like set of bars running along the staircase of the school after “too many students were getting high and thinking they were Superman”. His former history teacher Mr. Kerrigan, who had turned the once ne’er-do-well Louis away from his unruly ways, has resigned himself to his belief that the current student body of Lincoln High School is beyond saving, but his pessimism is quickly challenged when Louis uses his Capoeira skills to throw a gang of drug pushers off campus.
Seeing Louis’ display instantly grabs the attention of the student body and Kerrigan convinces the school principal to start a Capoeira program at Lincoln High in the hopes of turning the school’s dismal current social state around. The school consents to the proposal, starting Louis off with Lincoln High’s twelve most troublesome youths. Though Louis is able to instill discipline and a passion for Capoeira in his new students, his positive influence puts him at odds with Miami’s most powerful crime boss, Silverio Oliveras, whose young cousin Orlando happens to be one of Louis’ new prodigies.
It’s perplexing to think that, in the years since “Only the Strong” was released, Capoeira has been surprisingly underutilized in martial arts films. Most younger fans probably know the art best from playing the characters Eddy Gordo and Christie Monteiro in the “Tekken” video games, or from seeing Lateef Crowder put the art to use in films like “Tom Yum Goong” and “Undisputed 3” (or with Crowder’s appearance in the live-action “Tekken” as Eddy Gordo himself!) Sure, Capoeira has managed to pop up in an action film here and there, with Marrese Crump displaying his prowess in the art in “Tom Yum Goong 2” and Halle Berry being trained in it for her role in “Catwoman” (without a doubt, the ONLY complimentary thing that can be said of that monstrosity!), along with appearances in a few others. But save for the Brazilian film “Besouro”, it is a puzzling fact that “Only the Strong” is the only notable martial arts film to provide any major showcase or focus on Capoeira.
Created by African slaves brought to Brazil, the art is well-known for incorporating tribal dance movements to conceal its fighting techniques, and has been a staple of tricking and XMA competitions with Anderson Silva and Wesley Snipes being among its more well-known practitioners. Mark Dacascos, already a seasoned martial artist, well-versed in Wun Hop Kuen Do and other arts, took up Capoeira in preparation for his role here, and no one who sees him in action is likely to peg him a beginner. Like Donnie Yen in the “Ip Man” films, Dacascos’ performance in “Only the Strong” is testimony to his tremendous prowess in martial arts, adapting his skills to a new art, easily persuading the viewer that he’s been doing it his entire life.
The film does stretch its credibility in some of its training sequences. In particular, Louis’ strategy of getting his initially out-of-control disciples in line by turning the runt of the litter into a fighting machine sees him bringing the rookie up to speed far too quickly. But it’s a nitpick that’s easily overlooked given how good the action is, and how believable Dacascos is as a veteran of Capoeira. Opening with Louis participating in a ginga (moving and swinging back and forth) during his tour in Brazil, the film’s many Capoeira sequences are marvelously staged and photographed with the camera often placed beneath the fighters to truly capture the beauty of their kicks, tumbles and aerial maneuvers. A newcomer to Capoeira will most certainly be awestruck by the art’s unorthodox approach towards offensive and defensive techniques, especially its emphasis on delivering kicks from a lower position than normal and often with one or both hands used as the fighter’s foundation. And once again, it’s an aspect of the art that Dacascos handles like a true pro.
In his role of the villainous Silverio, Paco Christian Prieto’s build does nothing to hinder his agility, as one can clearly see each time he launches a roundhouse kick that calls upon him to place his weight on one hand. Prieto’s performance in “Only the Strong” makes one wonder “whatever happened to that guy?” His duel against Jean-Claude Van Damme in “Lionheart” is most likely the only other film viewers have seen him in. In any case, as the most experienced capoeirista of the film’s two leads, he at least looks a potent adversary for the nimble (and somewhat more beefed up than usual) Dacascos, and the battles between the two, incorporating kicks, flips, tumbles, and even some swordplay, are every bit the ballet that a celluloid portrayal of Capoeira calls for.
While not without its share of cheesy sentimentality and a few novice fighters becoming adept in their art quicker than they should, “Only the Strong” is great fun. It’s still hard to get one’s head around the notion that this is the only major martial arts film focused on Capoeira that Hollywood has produced, but it’s safe to say that that honour has not gone to an unworthy film. Mark Dacascos easily convinces the viewer that he’s a true mestre of Capoeira, and the knowledge of his later appearances in films like “Drive” and “Mortal Kombat: Legacy” makes “Only the Strong” feel like a cherished relic from his early days. As for Paco Christian Prieto, however brief his career in martial arts flicks may have been, his portrayal of the fiendish Capoeira exponent Silverio at least makes it a memorable one.
Seriously, though, whatever happened to that guy?!
- Mark Dacascos trained in Capoeira under Mestre Amen Santo in preparation for his role in the film. Santo appears in the film as a close friend of Louis’ in Brazil, and also served as one of the fight choreographers.
- Ninjitsu master Frank Dux served as one of the film’s fight choreographers, and appears in the film as the man in the welding mask that Louis fights in the car chopping shop. Dux was famously portrayed by Jean-Claude Van Damme in the 1988 film “Bloodsport”.
- Geoffrey Lewis, who portrays Mr. Kerrigan in the film, also appeared alongside Jean-Claude Van Damme in the film “Double Impact”, which like “Only the Strong”, was also directed by Sheldon Lettich.