Bullet Points: Only the Strong
Only the Strong successfully merged two action movie genres into what is easily one of my favorite action movies.
First, you have the inner city school with kids who were on a road to nowhere that needed a guiding light to help give them a fighting chance in the world. This was a theme that became quite popular in the late 80’s and into the 90’s with movies like The Principal, Lean on Me, Dangerous Minds and The Substitute. But Only the Strong combines a martial arts element with the popular school theme. And not just any martial art, the Brazilian martial art known as Capoeira, something that had not been seen time and time again.
- Our Hero: Only the Strong was my introduction to Mark Dacascos and for me he made a tremendous first impression. Dacascos plays ex-Special Forces soldier Louis Stevens. Louis returns to his hometown of Miami, Florida and when he stops by his old high school to see his favorite teacher Mr. Kerrigan (played by the late, great Geoffrey Lewis), the school is not exactly as he remembers it. Drugs and violence are a daily part of the school day routine now. Many of the students have juvenile records and are headed for a life of crime and/or an early grave. In a great example of movie happenstance, one of the students is getting roughed up by his drug dealing older brother while Louis is visiting the school. Louis springs into action and comes to the aid of the bullied student, showing off his Capoeira skills in the process. A light bulb goes off in Mr. Kerrigan’s head…
- After School Special: Mr. Kerrigan pitches the idea that Louis teaches the school’s worst of the worst the art of Capoeira, in lieu of their usual PE class. Kerrigan’s belief is that the discipline required to learn a martial art would do them some good, and feels Louis will be able to connect with the kids on a level none of the teachers, including himself, have been able to. Louis and Kerrigan convert an abandoned fire station into Louis’ dojo. You may think this is a big task for just two men, but you have to remember these two men are Mark Dacascos and Geoffrey Lewis, PLUS there’s a montage so that always makes things easier.
- Juvenile Delinquents: The three most notable members of Louis’ class are Donovan. A young man with real musical talent, he even remixes the tape of Capoeira music that Louis brought back with him from Brazil. Shay, the young man Louis saved from the drug dealing older brother. Shay ends up being the first student to give the Capoeira a chance. And last but not least, Orlando Aliveres. Orlando proves to be the toughest nut to crack and his relationship with Louis is further strained as Orlando’s uncle Silverio is the gang leader that runs the city. You may recognize Silverio (played by Paco Christian Prieto) as the guy who fought Jean-Claude Van Damme in the swimming pool in Lionheart.
- Trouble is Brewing: As you may imagine, Silverio and his associates do not take too kindly to Louis trying to be a positive role model to Orlando, who Silverio wants to be a part of the “family business”. As a result they use several intimidation tactics, like harassing one of the teachers at the high school who also happens to be Louis’ lady friend Dianna, kicking the crap out of Louis and Mr. Kerrigan and even setting the school on fire!
Fortunately for his students (and the viewers of this movie) Louis Stevens does not back down. And when he gets another crack at Silverio, the power of positivity overcomes the negativity. And I really think that is why I love this movie so much. It may be one of the most “feel good” action movies of all-time.
To me Only the Strong is to Dacascos as Bloodsport is to Jean-Claude Van Damme. I can’t imagine anyone else playing Frank Dux but JCVD. I can’t imagine anyone else playing Louis Stevens but Mark Dacascos. He was perfect for the role and this was a great way to make his leading man debut. He left an impression on me and I’m sure I’m not the only one.
Geoffrey Lewis also does a fantastic job as Mr. Kerrigan. You watch the movie and you want Mr. Kerrigan to be your teacher.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t give Paco Christian Prieto his just due. He exudes arrogance and you want to see him get his ass kicked. That’s Bad Guy 101.
Only the Strong is easily among my top ten action movies and possesses a great deal of rewatchability . I’m not sure I can say enough good things about Only the Strong, but I’ll try to limit it to a few more Bullet Points…
- Funny I Should Mention Him: I mentioned Frank Dux earlier, he was actually the fight choreographer for the movie and played the welder that Louis Stevens battles in Silverio’s chop shop.
- Grandma Mima Would Be Proud: I knew I had seen Stacey Travis, who plays Louis’ love interest Dianna in the movie, in something else, but couldn’t quite put my finger on it… then it hit me! She played Elaine’s meat loving cousin Holly on an episode of Seinfeld. I think Grandma Mima would be proud that she ended up with a guy like Louis Stevens.
- Soundtraxx: The soundtrack to Only the Strong can definitely get stuck in your head. I remember after I first saw this movie way back when I went out to Circuit City (when that was still a thing) the next day to pick up the CD (are those still a thing?)