Louis Stevens (Mark Dacascos) is an American G.I. who has spent a lot of time posted in Brazil where he trained in the local martial art of capoeira, making some good friends in the process. But the time has come to return to the United States, and he heads for Miami where he grew up, more specifically the school where he was taught by Mr Kerrigan (Geoffrey Lewis), because he believes he can help the teacher out. On arrival at the place of learning, the place is overrun with kids who simply don't give a damn about learning and bettering themselves when their best prospect is selling drugs, and their next best is taking them and Kerrigan has no idea of how to deal with them. But Louis does...
Mark Dacascos had been acting for around ten years before he had the chance to headline his own vehicles, and the first of those, American Samurai, was mostly released straight to video. His follow-up indicated it must have impressed somebody, as director and writer Sheldon Lettich saw a new Jean-Claude Van Damme in this chap and after making a couple of films with the established star it was time to make more of Dacascos' abilities with Only the Strong. When this was released there were many who expressed surprise that it had made it a theatrical distribution when it looked to all intents and purposes like a straight to video affair, but then there are a number of movies that may surprise casual observers with their cinema outings.
Albeit a lot of those releases to the big screen may not have lasted very long, and in the era of genre movies getting a small distribution for a weekend or so before showing up on streaming services maybe it's not as unexpected as it used to be since that is a good method of drumming up interest and at least making the potential audience know your efforts are out there to see. But this little item was actually fairly widely seen as if it were a mainstream release and Mr Dacascos was a worthy action star to take yourself out to a night at the pictures to watch, though the reaction was not always favourable, perhaps because you could not bring beer and pizza into the auditorium and it's bad form to put your feet up on the seats in front.
Especially if someone is already sitting there. As for the plot, we were asked to invest in yet another To Sir With Love copy, except with this martial arts business instead of inspirational speeches to teach the kids self-respect (although Louis was not backward about coming forward with the pep talks should the need arise). Capoeira classes enjoyed a boost after impressionable moviegoers watched this and wanted to have a go themselves, so it must have been doing something right, though the jury was still out over whether the activity was presented to its best advantage, with Lettich himself expressing reservations about the choreography in the end result. There was certainly one problem you could see with the way Dacascos and the cast went about it, and it wasn't the fact it was essentially fight-dancing.
Not in the West Side Story manner, not even in the Absolute Beginners manner, but legend had it the Brazilian slaves taught themselves combat disguised as a dance so as not to get into trouble with their masters (thanks, Wikipedia), so there was a lot of grooving to the beats to go with the actual beats of fist in face. Though it was more the feet where the issues lay, for much of the time the fighters were performing grand, looping kicks with their legs fully extended, at times above their heads, which assuredly looked athletic but was also surely providing a big target should your opponent think, sod this, and boot you square in the bollocks. That nobody, not even the main baddie Paco Christian Prieto (a gang boss, natch), thought to use this tactic was a demonstration of how sporting the characters were, even the ones who tried to burn down the school, when it came to the hand to hand (or foot to foot) combat, and also how well-behaved this was as an action movie, never mind that there is a fatality halfway through and plenty of "You don’t tell me what to do!" posturing. Music by Harvey W. Mason.