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‘Only the Strong’ (PG-13)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 27, 1993

Capoeira is a rhythm-rooted martial arts discipline that originated as a sort of rural break dance in Brazil in the 16th century, when black slaves disguised its purpose from their masters by layering the illusion of dance over its true purpose of self-defense. Based on African rituals of dance and chanting, capoeira receives its first significant exposure in "Only the Strong," a film that fails to mention its historic context. As a result, it ends up as nothing more than a fresh martial arts flavor wasted in a typically inept update on "The Blackboard Jungle."

Having picked up on capoeira while serving as a Green Beret adviser in Brazil, Louis Stevens (Mark Dacascos) comes home to Miami to find his old high school overrun by drugs and violence. When he kicks a drug dealer's butt during lunch hour, Louis is suddenly saddled with the school's culturally diverse equivalent of the Dirty Dozen and challenged to turn them around by teaching them capoeira. Naturally, they resist, but since capoeira is taught through an irresistible dance rhythm, it's just a matter of time before they're won over. Plus, they are learning to really kick butt.

Unfortunately, one of the boys, Orlando (Richard Coca), is already caught up in a life of crime and, wouldn't you know it, his cousin Silverio is not only a petty crime boss but also from the barrio, where he too learned capoeira. As Silverio, the charmingly feral Paco Christian Prieto is bad to the bone -- and to others' bones. Unless you know genre convention, you might actually bet on him.

But genre convention requires that the good guy win, even when confronted with buzz saws, steel poles, acetylene torches and machetes, and when outnumbered 20 to 1. Dacascos, son of martial arts teachers and champions and a champion in his own right, is as handsome as he is agile, and capoeira's graceful athleticism suits him well. But Dacascos is a bit too mild-mannered an actor and his voice is too gentle -- particularly contrasted with his fighting presence. When he's not handling testosterone eruptions by his students, he even plays kissy-face with Dianna (Stacey Travis, the only woman in the film with a speaking part, and a small one at that).

Because of its rhythmic roots, capoeira comes across as an intriguing discipline, and brings a much-needed freshness to the fight sequences, choreographed by Joselito "Amen" Santo (who had a capoeira dojo in Washington in the mid-'80s). If only the plot were a little less obvious, the confrontations a little less cliched.

Director Sheldon Lettich, who wrote the script with Luis Esteban, was also responsible for Jean-Claude Van Damme's "Double Impact" and "Lionheart." Lettich may have seen Dacascos as a new martial arts franchise, but it's going to be a while before he turns him into a profitable one.

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