Only the simple-minded will find much to cheer in this martial arts actioner, which has the queasy feel of a movie slapped together by the marketing department — i.e., let’s double our pleasure by putting those nifty kicks and leaps to a “Lambada” beat. With a Jean-Claude Van Damme epic already in circulation, Fox will face a tough fight for box office turf.
Pic does provide a major-studio vehicle for Mark Dacascos, whose impressive look and athletic ability could position him for bigger things after paying his dues in the likes of “American Samurai” and “Ninja Academy.”
Here, working with co-writer/director Sheldon Lettich, a three-time Van Damme collaborator, Dacascos has to overcome a lot more than just a neighborhood full of hostile types — like the unintentional giggles evoked by some of the other performers and the script.
Dacascos plays Louis, a special forces officer who has mastered capoeira — a Brazilian form of kung fu that relies on a musical beat — while stationed overseas.
Returning to Miami, he seeks out an old teacher (Geoffrey Lewis), who suggests he use that skill to take the 12 toughest kids in school and instill discipline in them — the thought being if it’ll work with them, it’ll work on anybody.
Unfortunately, two of those kids are related to neighborhood drug lords — the most menacing being Silverio (Paco Christian Prieto), a pony-tailed lummox who, conveniently, is also a capoeira master, giving Louis someone to play with.
Lettich and co-writer Luis Esteban don’t waste much time on winning these allegedly lost-cause kids over, the better to get to Louis’ showdown with the bad guys.
Still, the lapses in logic are wide enough to drive a graffiti-tagged school bus through, and lead baddie Prieto, while physically imposing, consistently sounds like he’s doing a bad impersonation of Desi Arnaz.
Dacascos bears some physical resemblance to the late Brandon Lee and possesses some of the same easy charm, though there’s scant outlet for the latter except for a brief liaison with a former classmate (Stacey Travis) who wears rather amusingly short dresses for a young woman working in a tough inner-city school.
Technically, the action scenes are athletic but relatively unimaginative when they’re not downright ridiculous, and the music proves so persistent, someone must have forgotten that those two “Lambada” movies didn’t exactly set the world on fire.
“Only the Strong” does push a “Just say no” theme, with an additional message that might be translated “kick butt, stay in school.” Staying in theaters should be an equally formidable challenge.