Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Everyone Was Capoeira Fighting

(posted as part of the 2nd Annual White Elephant Blogathon at Lucid Screening)

Only The Strong - 1993
Diretor: Sheldon Lettich
Starring: Mark Dacascos

Egads! Where do I start.

One of reasons that West Side Story seems dated today is the way it used dancing to symbolize gang fighting. Somehow, "jazz hands" just don't have the same street cred anymore.

In Only The Strong, a 1993 effort directed by Sheldon Lettich and starring Mark Dacascos, dancing isn't just used as a metaphor for fighting, dancing IS the way these thugs fight.

Our main character, Louis Stevens (Mark Dacascos), a former Green Beret (they're always former Green Berets aren't they) returns home from a stint in Brazil to find the old neighborhood in shambles.

A tattered American flag visible behind him, Stevens' old high school teacher and mentor, "Kerrigan" (that's how he's listed in the credits), struggles to explain Darwinism to a bunch of disinterested pupils who are too well aware of how the process of natural selection works (hence, the movie's title).

Stevens, who has mastered Capoeira, a rhythm-based Brazilian martial art form, gets thrown into the mix by beating up a local drug king pin on the high school playground. Seeing the students respond to Louis, Kerrigan decides to enlist him to help clean up the neighborhood.

The school board, portrayed as a mostly ineffectual bunch, approve of an experimental "boot-camp" where ten of the toughest "lost causes" are culled from the student body to be cured by the gift of Capoeria. Kerrigan and Stevens turn an old firehouse into a martial arts studio.

Even by nineties standards the ethnically diverse bunch don't seem ALL that tough. In fact, it appears that the worst infractions of one of the delinquents is that he plays his oversized boom box too loud.

Of course, this boom box comes in handy when Stevens incorporates it into his lessons that are accompanied by the tune "Zoom, Zoom, Zoom."

I hate to be nasty, but it turns out that Only the Strong's most important contribution to our culture is as the source for a Mazda ad campaign theme song.

To be fair, no one watched Fred Astaire movies for the drama off the dance floor. Likewise, nothing Bruce Lee ever did that didn't involve punching, kicking and nunchucks was really all that interesting.

So, I won't be overly critical of Only the Strong's narrative. Suffice to say, there isn't much of one.

That leaves me with just the fighting to judge.

I appreciate the physical talent required to practice this martial art form. And while I'd never say this to the face of a Capoeira master, the fighting in Only the Strong is quite weak.

I'll give them credit for NOT resorting to the sort of ridiculous floating in the air on wires trick that ruined the fight scenes for me in (take your pick) Charlie's Angels, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Kill Bill. The Matrix is the exception that proves the rule because the internal logic of it's premise ALLOWED for that sort of gravity defiance.

I'm also not a fan of the over choreographed battles in current films like the Bourne series, which have always struck me as fake because of their very perfection (plus the fact that I've never bought into Matt Damon as a tough guy).

For my money, two of the VERY best fight scenes in cinema was the hand-to-hand struggle between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw in From Russia with Love and near the end of Enter the Dragon where Bruce Lee beats up henchmen who ambush him in the command center. Both are well planned out, yet seem spontaneous.

Only the Strong suffers from the fact that, in addition to never using their guns, the bad guys politely wait their turn to get their licks in on the hero. Thus, giving Louis the chance to thump his way out of it.

Years ago, my uncle (a tough ex-sailor) and I went to see Billy Jack (a movie about a Green Beret who vents his frustration at the establishment with frequent displays of violent pacifism). I can still remember my uncle laughing and telling me the story about getting jumped by five guys who, for every single punch he threw, hit him with ninety-nine.

The other problem with the fights as staged in Only the Strong, is that the combatants seldom get close enough to actually hit each other. The battles consist of a series of random back flips and gratuitous cartwheels that occasionally get broken up by actual punches.

I've included a YouTube of the Only the Strong's final showdown.

I'll save you from having to watch the previous hour and a half and let you judge for yourself if it's any good.


Anonymous said...

WOW! you are one harsh SOB aren't you?? Is there ANYTHING that you
DO like? Let's see you go out and
make a movie and let US tell you
what we think about YOU! Let's see
if you can do it better !!

GCCR said...


Wow, you are emotional, aren't you?

If you had taken the time to read the premise of the "White Elephant Blogathon,", you would have realized that it was to watch and review movies that sucked. And Only The Strong was no exception.

BTW, I speak quite highly of From Russia with Love in the very review that you supposedly read.

I also have other movie reviews on my site that are very positive.

So, lighten up Francis.

Anonymous said...

just for future reference, the internal logic of CTHD also allowed for the floating/running in air. the film is based on a book of the wuxia genre, where having the ability to travel in the air is standard.

Anonymous said...

Way to go about CTHD other anon. i am the first one.. this guy seems
to miss a lot about the movies he
is cutting up into little pieces..The premise of Capoeria is the flips, the dancing, and trying
NOT to get hit..You missed a whole
storyline going on..IT ISN"T ALL ABOUT the fighting.. it is to STOP
all the fighting and to save the kids who are on the road to being street gang members, or dropouts.. If you actually WATCH a movie and enjoy it for what it is and not try to over analize every move the actors make maybe you might enjoy more of them

GCCR said...

Hey Anon...Thanks, at least for not call me "one harsh SOB" again (that's constructive).

First off, I REALIZE that Only The Strong was about trying to make the statment you said, "to STOP all the fighting and to save the kids who are on the road to being street gang members, or dropouts."

Just because it has a worthy goal doesn't mean that it can't miss that goal and suck (or in this case suck badly).

Frankly, the movie is one of the most banal thing I've ever seen. NOTHING about is good, diaglog, camera work, acting, action, NOTHING.

To your point about watching a movie just for what it is and not being over analyze it...

I loved "Enter the Dragon." Sure, the script was pedestrian and the action just fair. But the sheer force of Bruce Lee's fight staging sells it. I watch it EVERYTIME I find it on TV (especially the letterbox version).

Having said that, there's no reason to turn off one's mind and just blankly accept any piece of shit that thrown at me calling itself a movie. Period.

Anonymous said...

the movie is old, and Mark Decascos is not a capoeirista. The fights suck in the movie - but it has nothing to do with capoeira, which in reality is awesome. (You can see some real capoeira at the beggining and at the end of the movie)

GCCR said...

Intersting Anon, I simply assumed that Mark Decascos was a capoeirista.

I give the practitioners their props. It certainly does take physical ability. But, as you said, the fighting in Only The Strong didn't come across on the screen very well.

Anonymous said...

well, other than the whole "conversation" going on here: gccr makes a point in putting "Only the Strong" into the category "Not-so-good". I mean, the story line is weak, the actors are bad and the fighting scenes... well, there is room for optimization. But let's not forget when this movie was made and I also cant believe that the directors did really want to make a good story out of it. I think everything is just put up as kinda background for some cool capoeira moves, no?