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‘Only the Strong’ (PG-13)

By Joe Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 27, 1993

Arnold is over. So is kung-fu, karate and kick-boxing. The next action hero is Mark Dacascos, star of "Only the Strong," which not only introduces a new bendable action figure, but adds a new twist to the tuckered-out martial arts genre -- beatings to a beat.

Dacascos, a California-born gymnast and martial arts champ, plays Louis Stevens, a U.S. Army Special Forces soldier who comes home to Miami to find his former high school besieged by drugs and gang violence. While stationed in Brazil, Stevens mastered capoeira (say it "cap-way-ra"), an Afro-Brazilian martial art that fuses dance and combat in thrilling whole-body movements, often performed to percussive music.

Appalled by what he sees, Stevens challenges his school to give him 12 of its hard-case kids to tough-love and train in the highly-disciplined martial art, and he and his white-wearing good guys (they look like a Levis 501 jeans ad) are soon ready take on black-clad drug lord Silverio (played with cartoon-villain intensity by Paco Christian Prieto) and his bad boys in the 'hood.

Written by Sheldon Lettich, who has several Van Damme flicks and a Stallone under his belt, "Only the Strong" relies slightly less relentlessly on violence for its own sake than most in this genre, but the film is clumsily assembled and edited, heavy on the slow-mo, and its simplistic story plays like "The Kids From Fame" armed with very sharp knives.

But the capoeira scenes are exhilarating: Gathered in a circle, chanting and clapping to the pulsing tribal music, Stevens and his students take turns flipping and tumbling in gravity-defying grace like human gyroscopes, and the balletic, mesmerizing moves -- almost too fast for the camera to capture -- are even more exciting when put to use in the fight scenes.

Dark-eyed Dacascos (who some may recognize from his stint in "General Hospital") has been described by the film's producers as "the Jean-Claude Van Damme of the mid-'90s" (talk about your faint praise!), but he comes across more like a Greg Louganis-Bruce Lee hybrid. A Clark Kent-ish type, Dacascos is young, lithe and appealing, with a puppyish vulnerability that should make him a pinup. Alas, he is still in the Van Damme leagues when it comes to acting.

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