Friday Fisticuffs: Only The Strong (1993)

Remember when movies were really concerned about strong adults reaching out to disenfranchised young people in a school setting? You had the serious ones like Gangsta’s Paradise, the funny ones like Sister Act and the parodies like High School High. Apparently this isn’t a problem anymore as these films seem to have died off in the 90s. Side note: I think movies like these that showed the worst of the worst in public schools made me even more terrified of them (I went to Catholic school).

Anyway, there were also some action flicks in this decade-specific sub sub subgenre, like Only The Strong. I decided on this flick for this week’s Friday Fisticuffs because of two reasons: it was short and it stars Mark Dacascos. The name might not be super familiar to you, but take a look. He’s none other than The Chairman on Iron Chef America! He also starred in The Crow TV show and a few other things I saw back before he became the backflipping head of Kitchen Stadium.

I wound up liking the movie for those reasons and more. For one thing, it’s all based around a particular fighting style. I know it’s unrealistic, but I kind of like when every fight in a movie revolves around one not-well-known style. In this case it’s Capoeira, a Brazilian martial arts style that incorporates dance moves. I also wound up liking the movie because it’s a strange mix of The Dirty Dozen, Breakin’ and has more than a few similarities to another “fighter teaching bad kids how to handle themselves” movie I stumbled upon a few years back called Band Of The Hand. Oddly enough, I compared that movie to many of these same movies, but that one came out almost 10 years before.

The basic plot involves a soldier (The Chairman) returning home after serving in a place where he learned Capoeira. Once home, he visits his old high school and winds up offering to teach some of the worst kids his style of fighting with the intent of really teaching them discipline and honor. He runs afoul of the biggest drug deal in town who also happens to be the cousin of one of his students. Speaking of the kids, they’re you’re average swathe of “bad kids” from this time. The douchey jock who won’t stop making jokes, the street tough, the kid who won’t get off his skateboard, the kid with the jambox. The oddest thing about the whole movie is that none of these kids are recognizable today. You almost always find at least one “that guy” in these kinds of things.

The story progresses as these kinds of movies do. Lots of training montages with the kids learning more lessons as they go leading to various fight scenes some of which were pretty good. My only problem with the movie aside from it taking itself too seriously (they killed one of the students to show how bad the bad guy was) is that some of the fight scenes weren’t shot very well. By that I mean you can see their punches and kicks not landing. On the whole, the fight scenes–especially the ones towards the end of the movie when The Chairman has decided to take matters into her own hands–are pretty great. The final battle is kind of whatever. Once you’ve seen enough of these things you can read the tea leaves pretty clearly: the good guy will start to loose, get pretty injured in the process and get really close to death just before coming back and winning. Unless the fighting in these things is crazy fun, they just get a little boring.

All in all, I liked Only The Strong. It’s got a message that probably gets lost in the shuffle of corniness and dance fighting, but still lands. Generally it’s more lighthearted than other flicks, even the Seagal or Van-Damme ones with a message, but overall is a lot more fun and less groan-worthy.

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