Jim Vorel and Kenneth Lowe are connoisseurs of terrible movies. In this occasional series, they watch and then discuss the fallout of a particularly painful film. Be wary of spoilers.
Jim: Well Ken, after the soul-deadening burden that was our viewing of Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star, I figured we needed something by way of a cinematic palate cleanser this month. Hence our film Only the Strong, which is no doubt “bad” in many ways, but a much more enjoyable affair, I think you’ll agree. I’d only ever watched this movie once before, but I’ve often described it to people as “Dangerous Minds, except with Capoeira.” It’s that movie if you replaced Michelle Pfeiffer with Eddy Gordo from Tekken.
Ken: Or, considering it stars none other than Mark Decascos, replacing her with “Jimmy Lee from Double Dragon, AM I RIGHT? My life is enriched for having enjoyed this film and I thank you, sir.
Jim: Oh man, I had totally forgotten that he was in Double Dragon. I’m sure that the vast majority of people will just recognize him as The Chairman from the American version of Iron Chef, what with all the apple-biting and flipping and whatnot.
Ken: Oh Jim, I came into this determined not to allow his performance in Double Dragon to be given short shrift. Has any martial arts film star ever faced a more physically intimidating and super-serious foe than Robert Patrick’s Koga Shuko?
Jim: Perhaps John Cena, who faced an older, but no less wily Robert Patrick in The Marine.
Ken: Man, I forgot about THAT.
Jim: Bad movies will do that to a man.
Ken: Before we go down a hole that must inevitably lead to Kevin Bacon, maybe you’d like to expound upon the deliriously silly premise of this movie.
Jim: OK, so it’s your standard “new teacher tries to clean up a school in trouble” movie, which was a staple in the ’80s and ’90s, in a time when Hollywood was greenlighting a lot of films about the imperious and disrespectful “youth of today.” The big twist is that instead of, say, teaching the students, as you’d get in the likes of Dangerous Minds or Stand and Deliver, the new teacher in question schools them in deadly Brazilian martial arts, with the school’s approval.
The school is like “well, these kids are beyond hope, so take your best shot at straightening them out with interpretive dance and spin kicks to the face.”
Ken: About two dozen or so times over the course of the movie, I heard the South Park joke where Cartman moonlights as a schoolteacher in the vein of Edward James Olmos and says, in a terrible accent, “Why can’t I get through to these kids???”
Ken: Lord have mercy.
Capoeira, for those not obsessively well-versed at googling martial arts in their spare time, is an Afro-Brazilian style of performative fighting that incorporates a lot of dance moves and, like Taekwondo, is centered around a lot of kicks. It’s interesting, and Decascos seems a competent practitioner. It also means the film makes the utterly absurd choice to have all of its street fights involve a circle of people chanting and singing upbeat songs.
Jim: Because Decascos’s character, Louis, just so happens to have gone to a high school in a neighborhood that is blighted by a gang of chanting, Capoeira-practicing drug runners. It’s one hell of a coincidence, Ken. The movie is full of them.
Ken: Miami is certainly known for two things: Great Cuban sandwiches and Capoeira street gangs.
Jim: As I watched the film this time around, I kept sort of obsessing about the little things. Like the casting of Decascos, for instance. Consider: He is not a Brazilian guy, nor does he look like one. He’s from Hawaii, in fact. They could have cast just about any black martial artist in the part and had him play someone with some kind of Brazilian ancestry, but instead they went with a Hawaiian guy who just so happened to travel to Brazil and learn Capoeira while stationed as a solider there. It’s kind of an odd choice.
Ken: All the odder for the fact that, if you wanted to go with some vaguely exotic Hero Guy, which I know must have been the intent, a Hawaiian fellow like Decascos looks nothing at all like somebody with any South American ancestry. My head hurt, but good on them for not inventing some bullcrap about Louis being from there or anything, which would have been miles dumber than all the times they cast obviously Korean actors in Chinese or Japanese roles or what-have-you.
Jim: Anyway, Louis shows up at his old high school to talk to his former social studies teacher Mr. Kerrigan (Geoffrey Lewis), who has been crushed into hopelessness by the arrogant and disrespectful gangbangers who now make up the student body. He gives Louis a tour of the school to show how bad it is, symbolized by graffiti and random students hitting up Louis for drugs in the bathroom. I was howling with laughter when they reached the barred-off spiral stairwell, and the gruff teacher explains that they had to seal it off because they had “too many kids thinking they were Superman” and apparently plummeting to their deaths.
He literally says “the janitor got tired of scraping them off the floor,” Ken. This is like some Class of 1999 dystopian stuff right here.
Ken: The statistics he cites are also a riot. He says something like “two thirds of them have guns,” and other bat-shit numbers.
The school is in fact so damned to perdition that I guess Jamaican drug dealers hang around in plain sight, despite the fact we later see in the film that cops have no problem rolling right up and hassling criminals.
Jim: The film is completely inconsistent about this, and I’m going to get into that point more later, but for now, Louis essentially picks a fight with a Rastafarian kickboxer to protect a student, and I got some more laughs at the look of joy on the face of the elderly social studies teacher as he watched his former student pummel a stranger on school grounds. The guy is basically salivating at the idea of turning Louis loose against the school’s troublemakers.
Ken: Yes, and this leads to one of the absolute most laugh-out-loud funny scenes. After Louis beats the snot out of this guy, Mr. Kerrigan takes him to the faculty lounge and argues before the principal and all assembled teachers that the most violent and baddest dudes in the school should all be trained by Louis. These are the armed, murderous kids whose gang-related blood feuds make them too dangerous to teach.
This is not in service of turning the high school into Outer Heaven from Metal Gear, mind you. This is ostensibly to raise their grades.
Jim: Gym class was doing nothing for them, Ken. They need Afro-Brazilian death rhythms to reach their true potential.
Ken: In chuckling about this prior to our discussion here, you brought up the love interest of this film. I guess maybe you can explain why we won’t be mentioning her again after this.
Jim: OK. Technically, she’s a character in this film, and her name is apparently Dianna (Stacey Travis). But it was only afterward that I realized how completely inconsequential she is—like, historically so. She’s another teacher, and an ex-girlfriend of Louis, but this might be the least important romantic subplot in cinema history. There’s one scene where they sort of rekindle their romantic connection and kiss, and then she’s barely in the film ever again afterward. You think for a moment near the end that she’s about to be kidnapped by the villain’s thugs, but that doesn’t happen and she just sort of disappears. It feels like there was probably a whole additional subplot that was written for her, but the entire thing was left on the cutting room floor. The result is that if she disappeared from the film entirely, literally nothing else in the plot would have to be changed. She has no narrative reason to exist.
Ken: Yeah, it’s a waste of screen time.
Stacey Travis, in the role of a lifetime.
So we know how this goes from here, right? Louis makes inroads with these troubled youngsters, who initially laugh off his sick dance moves until he begins PHYSICALLY ASSAULTING THEM WHILE THEY ARE OFF SCHOOL GROUNDS IN AN UNSANCTIONED CLANDESTINE FIGHT CLUB.
Jim: In particular, his teaching is directed at Orlando, the most troubled of all these troubled youngsters.
These kids are a motley crew, we should mention. Half of them are never named and have no lines, which begs the question of why they didn’t just script it to be six or eight kids, instead of 12. I have to ask you, before I forget: Did you happen to notice that one of the kids in particular has the weirdest look on his face every time he’s shown? I don’t think he ever has a line, and the camera is never on him for more than a moment, but he always looks completely glazed and vacant. This is the kid I’m talking about.
Ken: You know, I did notice him hanging back there looking vaguely stoned.
Jim: The photos don’t even do him justice, really—he has his eyes completely closed during many of the split-second shots where he’s shown. It’s just weird, man.
Anyway, though, as you suggested, there are a few kids who are the “hero kids” of his squad, who actually have names and motivations. There’s the boombox-carrying Donovan (Ryan Bollman), who can remix any Capoeira tune to include ’90s hip-hop, and a few other kids who quarrel over racial disputes among themselves, but Orlando (Richard Coca) is the key to the whole thing. He’s the classic young lion gangster who is being pushed into the criminal life by his gang lord older cousin Silverio (Paco Christian Prieto), although Louis and his capoeira philosophies might just offer him a better way of life! Until Silverio intervenes, that is.
Tell us all about the wonderful villain of Only the Strong, Ken.
Ken: Silverio is in every way that counts my own personal masculine ideal, Jim. Built like somebody stood the pyramid at Giza on its head, wearing shirts with extra buttons just so they can be unbuttoned, and rocking both the slickest of ponytails and a borderline incomprehensible accent, he is a challenge for Louis in both physique and ridiculousness.
Also, he has trained his men to provide him the perfect rhythmic backtrack of chanting and clapping for when he decides to personally dominate a foe with his dance fighting.
Jim: Is he supposed to be Brazilian, Ken? It’s really quite unclear. He sounds like a parody of a Lothario/villain character from the adaptation of a Danielle Steele romance novel. You COCK-A-ROACH!
Ken: I…don’t know? To be honest, his accent was so layered on that I couldn’t reliably tell if he was speaking Spanish or Portuguese, but I’m inclined to say he was speaking Spanish. My firsthand South American cultural knowledge was defeated by this villain. And Louis is defeated by him at first, too.
Jim: Louis pretty much gets the crap kicked out of him in their first fight; it’s not even close. I was incredibly amused by Silverio’s proclamation that “we’re going to find out who’s the real Capoeira mestre in this neighborhood,” as if every neighborhood in the city just has its own appointed Capoeira master.
It’s a post I can only assume falls just in between “sanitation commissioner” and “dogcatcher” on the prestige totem pole.
Ken: Well, per Fatal Deviation we know that every Irish hamlet has its own Catholic Kung Fu death tournament, so.
Jim: Silverio’s sights are set awfully provincially, if he’s just focusing on the one neighborhood. You gotta dream big, man! He could be the best Capoeira master in the entire tri-county area, if he just believes in himself.
Ken: Despite thoroughly unmanning Louis, he decides to let Louis keep training Orlando. The logic here is unclear.
Jim: Extremely, and I was just about to make that point myself. He just beats Louis down, and says, “Well, you’re OK, but you’re no Silverio. But keep on teaching my cousin the basics.” Louis really slinks away with his tail between his legs after that one.
Ken: It doesn’t seem like he was even injured that badly. This was no Man With No Name/Yojimbo beat down.
Jim: Nevertheless, his Capoeira program works miracles with the kids, to the point that the school’s principal wants to expand the deadly arts to be taught all over the city and state. I enjoyed the cynical way in which they just ignored the possibility that these kids might have problems in their lives that martial arts would not solve. Like hey, “Thanks sensei, all of my behavioral problems are gone ever since you taught me to dance fight. I’m no longer from a poor family; my father stopped hitting my mother; and my narcotics addiction has really subsided.” It’s like the American Capoerista Association funded the movie or something—it’s Capoeira propaganda.
Ken: It definitely takes a ’90s movie approach to how easily crime and blight can be solved, yes. It’s working so well that Silverio, after forcing Orlando to drop out of school right in front of a cop on school property, decides he needs to send Louis a message. Rather than just, I don’t know, killing him in his sleep, he wrecks the school, beats up Mr. Kerrigan and starts a fire that kills Donovan, the kid with the funky beats.
Silverio is just a small push away from being Razor Ramon.
Jim: That seriously took me by surprise, Ken. I last saw this movie like five years ago, and I didn’t remember at all that one of the kids had to be sacrificed to raise the stakes. And let it be said: The kid dies because he’s a complete idiot. He and the Jamaican kid going into the burning room to save Mr. Kerrigan = heroic. Donovan going back into the burning room again to fetch the musical stick-a-majig they use to make Capoeira music? Stupid.
And of course, the principal’s reaction to this is to be furious at Louis the Capoeira instructor, rather than the local gang lord who tried to burn down the school.
Ken: Profoundly stupid. Worse though, spoiler alert, is that the hero doesn’t even repay blood with blood. Louis of course goes into vengeance mode after this. His first target is the chop shop Silverio’s men run. I wasn’t clear on whether Orlando told him where it is, but if he and others knew where it was…would the police not have been salivating over multiple grand theft auto charges?
Jim: OK, this is where the plot of the film really ventures off into insane territory, and it’s mostly due to questions about police involvement.
First of all, Silverio and co. would obviously be in jail after the attack on the school. The film acts as if he has some kind of alibi, and even says those words at one point, but his presence there could be corroborated by multiple witnesses. Both Kerrigan and the female lead were confronted by him at the school, and both survived. They know that he tried to burn the place down. And yet the police aren’t even looking for Silverio by the time that Louis goes all commando on them. It makes no sense. They tried to burn down the school in broad daylight.
Ken: It also seems like Orlando would be sweating under a lamp in an interrogation room after this, yeah. Of course, this is in service to the last two major fight scenes in the film, which I leave it to you to describe for us. I was in dance-fighting heaven.
Jim: As you said, Louis first strikes back at Silverio’s gang by donning his old Green Beret fatigues (although they apparently never paid him, because he sleeps on a cot in the Capoeira gym) by attacking their chop shop, which leads to a lot of Jackie Chan-style implemented weapons usage as he plows through a field of mooks. All of this stuff is genuinely entertaining, I should add—Decascos was a pretty darn impressive martial artist at the time, and the fights are choreographed decently. The highlight is obviously the guy who fights him in a welders mask, with a lit torch, wielding it like it’s a pair of damn nunchucks.
Join me, and we’ll rule the galaxy as father and son!
Ken: Yes, I have to say that the fighting in this silly little feature is actually so competently staged and performed that it almost, almost, takes us out of the territory of a bad movie. Fortunately, the utter nonsense of the premise and the hamminess of some of the actors keep us firmly in that arena. As do Louis’s sneaky take-downs of bad guys leading up to his capture and forced duel at the end. He uses hanging laundry as natural cover at one point, and it works.
Jim: Decascos, as an actor, seems like a likable, not-at-all-threatening kind of guy. I’m not sure he would ever work as a villain.
Ken: It’s kind of a shame you don’t see him in high-profile stuff anymore.
Jim: Well, he is 54 now. I wonder if he can still “ginga.”
Ken: I just assume it’s like riding a bike. Anyway, Louis is eventually ganged up on and captured in his flight from the wrecked chop shop. Set the final fight scene for us.
Jim: So the members of Silverio’s gang drag Louis to the battlefield, which appears to be…I’m not entirely sure, but it looks like a public park of some kind. There, they’re met by Louis’s students, who have come to give their own “Oh captain, my captain!” tribute in the form of fighting a bunch of gangbangers to the death if necessary. Silverio then arrives and starts to wail on Orlando, before Louis lays out the challenge: One more fight, “and this time we finish it.” Also, there are machetes.
OH, I also have to give props to Silverio’s absolutely incredible attire for a final duel. He is all that is man.
Fetch me my capoeira vest!
Ken: It’s definitely the most virile outfit I’ve seen on a man since I last attended a bullfight. With that said, I was let down in this scene for two reasons. First, as I mentioned before, Silverio gets to crawl away from this fight with his miserable life, which is just anticlimactic. Also, I was kind of hoping we would get to see the spectacle of these kids defeating Silverio’s posse, but apparently that was deemed too ridiculous.
I was hoping for full-on Roadhouse throat-ripping and should have known better, Jim.
Jim: There was no way you were getting that kind of denouement in a martial arts film like this one, which has a decided air of “very special TV episode” all about it. Only the Strong feels weirdly like something that would be shown as a public service announcement. It really is very chaste, isn’t it? There’s no nudity or sexuality in the film at all, either.
Ken: Too true. Very little red meat for a film about brawling. Louis teaches his students the power of Capoeira and not killing your foe, but totally using vigilante violence to solve problems. He is honored at the graduation ceremony in our last scene by flipping around to Capoeira beats and getting public, heroic applause. Nobody’s remembering poor Donovan, who burned to a crisp.
Jim: The whole thing is pretty sunny and feel-good, which only makes Donovan’s quickly glossed-over death stand out that much more. Perhaps there was more about it in the director’s cut, but it ended up on the same pile of discarded film that contained the rest of the romance subplot, or the douchey teacher from the first half who opposes Louis training “death squads,” and then disappears completely.
Ken: It feels like a lot was sacrificed to keep this thing to a tidy running time. On the whole, however, I have to give this film what passes for a good review here at Bad Movie Diaries.
Jim: Two Machetes Up!
Ken: I’ll do my best to return us to a suitably dour atmosphere for our next feature, Jim.
Jim: As long as it’s not Bucky Larson 2: European Gigolo, I think we’ll be alright.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer, and you can follow him on Twitter. Kenneth Lowe is a contributing writer for Paste Movies, and you can read more of his writing at his blog.