Fighting meets folk dancing in ever-so-weak 'Only the Strong'

August 27, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

You're about to get creamed. The big guy is closing in on you and the little guy will move in next. It's fight or flight, but flight is out because you're in a dead-end ally. The big guy smiles, draws back his fist. So you . . . . . . break into a Brazilian folk dance!

Well, that's the thrust of "Only the Strong," an extremely peculiar martial arts film that wears its double aspirations on its sleeves like cuff links: to make a star out of newcomer Mark Dacascos and to impress with a fighting style called "capoeira" (cop-o-WAY-a, according to press notes), based on Brazilian folk dancing.

I'm no expert, but I have a kind of a vague feeling that Dacascos will be around a little bit longer than the dance-fighting, but that neither of them will last as long as Steven Segal.

The plot of "Only the Strong" appears to have been surgically removed from Michael Mann's "Band of the Hand": A frustrated school system enjoins an ex-Green Beret to teach a rag-tag crew of good-bad Miami kids self-respect through martial arts so that ultimately they can retake their neighborhood from the bad-bad Miami kids -- i.e., thugs and dealers -- who run it.

While hardly original, such a setup has a certain archetypal sturdiness to it that can't be denied. And Dacascos, lean and sleek and suitably intense (he's a former karate champion), is pleasantly earnest, suitably muscular and looks good in tank tops. Given the right part, he might even generate some charisma, though such is notably absent here. And the kids, though playing absurdly thin roles, bring a lot of appealing energy and enthusiasm to their parts. Good villain, too: big, glowering guy named Silvero, played by big, glowering Paco Christian Prieto.

But . . . capoeira?

You could find more expertise than mine on close-quarter combat in the average Quaker Brownie troop, but even from my amateur's point of view, capoeira seems somewhat limited as a method of self-defense. Every time the threatened Dacascos drops with incredible limberness into the strange front-leaning limbo posture that is capoeira's first fighting position -- he looks as if he's trying to touch the cement with his chin while keeping his feet flat on the ground -- when facing six thugs as the beat-beat-beat of the Brazilian music on the soundtrack rises, you want to laugh. Why don't they just kick the stuffing out of him instead of waiting for him to go into his performance?

In the first place, one has to question a fighting style that demands so much room: Most of the kicks and blows acquire force consequent to elaborate wind-ups (it looks more like pitching than fighting or dancing) and while its acrobatic flourishes are visually engaging (lots of somersaults and backward flips), they seem to have nothing to do with the dark art of applying maximum pain with maximum speed and minimum fuss to a vulnerable part of the body in an alley.

And, secondly, the moves are so elaborately choreographed, one senses that a fight choreographer has worked with each lTC combatant over endless hours of rehearsal and that if one move is out of sequence, the whole thing will fall apart. It's fighting as engineered by that master of mayhem herself, Twyla Tharp.

The issue here isn't realism, it's credibility. If you can buy into the conceit of the martial arts film, it can be amusing. If, as here, it just seem ridiculous, the movie that follows grows rapidly more irritating. As a personal preference, I go for the Segal school. It seems real and dangerous, fast and mean and truly applicable in battle. It's scary. This stuff belongs on the "Ed Sullivan Show," right after Topo Gigo and before that little guy who played the harmonica, Johnny Puleo -- and since there isn't an "Ed Sullivan Show" any longer, maybe it belongs nowhere. Only the dumb will like "Only the Strong."

"Only the Strong"

Starring Mark Dacascos and Paco Christian Prieto

Directed by Sheldon Lettich

Released by 20th Century Fox

Rated PG-13

... **

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