Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Review: Only The Strong

I like Mark Dacascos in everything I've seen him in.  He's brilliant as the Chairman in Iron Chef America.  I loved his cameos in Stargate: Atlantis.  I enjoyed him in The Crow: Stairway To Heaven.  Don't even get me started on my secret love for Kamen Rider: Dragon Knight.

I also really love capoeira, the Brazilian martial art that's all about rhythm, fluidity of movement, and being able to kick someone in the face while upside down.  I love the appearance of the fighting style in movies and television shows (I smiled broadly when it made an appearance in the remake of The Karate Kid), and I'll freely admit it's a lot of fun to play as capoeira fighters when I work up the nerve to play fighting games.

It's not that I don't like playing fighting games, it's that I suck at fighting games.

But with capoeira fighters, it helps that half the time I don't even know what their moves are going to do, making it harder for my opponents to predict my actions, and they're also always a lot of fun to watch as they move.

Some are more fun to watch than others.
So when they take a movie starring Mark Dacascos performing capoeira against a gang whose primary form of street combat is also capoeira...why is it that I come away muttering and wishing I hadn't wasted my time?

Well, because it's a pretty terrible movie, is why.

Tell me if you've heard this movie formula before.  A tough as nails ex-military officer comes back to their hometown to discover that the local high school is filled with the three things adults were terrified of in the 90's:

1) Drugs

2) Rap music

3) Radical Teenz (fun fact: in the 90's, any instance of a letter "s" ending a word had to be changed to a "z" for radical purposes).  You will likely see at least one hat worn backwards and one skateboard.

The military man or woman gets a job at the school teaching some of the rougher students (either directly in a classroom or after school) and manages to teach them to have respect for themselves as well as each other, helping their class not only bring the whole school together to fight off the negative influences of drug and crime, but also get them to graduate when most people already gave up on them.

It's a pretty popular movie format, one that I can link to everything from Dangerous Minds to Take The Lead.  However, in each of those movies, the teacher is doing their best to get kids away from violence, to show them that there's a world larger than the neighborhood that's threatening to pull them all down so far they'd never be able to escape from it.  They're taught the importance of learning as well as whatever else they do to learn to respect themselves.

In Only The Strong, the movie frequently forgets about the idea of being good at anything but capoeira, and while we might see a student with an open book now and again, most of the school business is only filler until we get to scenes of people jumping around to music and attempting to beat each other up.  It feels like the movie's key message is that "the only way to escape from violence is by learning a different type of violence."  I realize that capoeira isn't meant to be a truly offensive martial art (you don't learn it to go around beating people up like Batman), but the movie loses track of the idea of it being a sport or game towards the second half of the movie, and instead embraces it more and more as a means of solving problems (read: beat them up).

It also introduces a lot of needless side plots.  A love interest with a fellow former student of the high school is brought in for Mark Dacascos, but she tends to disappear for large chunks of the film when she serves no purpose.  Strangely enough, she is present for one part of the story where the teacher takes his students into the everglades to go camping.  He even abandons everybody else on the bus to go set up a tent on the beach, which means he's left a sexually attractive young female teacher alone with a dozen of the "worst" students in the school.  There have to be rules against that.

One student introduced is described as one of these "twelve worst students in the school" but shows proficiency with electronics and computers, edits music, and immediately takes an interest in the capoeira class and winds up helping the teacher by doing a remix of his "fight music."

(Spoiler alert: guess which kid is killed off later for a rather silly reason simply to give everybody else something to really fight for?  Here's a hint, I just described him and he doesn't even get to appear on the movie poster with the other kids)

In the original review for this movie written by Roger Ebert, he calls out the film by stating that the movie doesn't attempt to do anything to make these students into individuals or thinkers, it simply gives them a new gang to be part of.  Sure, it might be a "program" instead of an "evil gang," but if you squint it's really hard to tell the difference, unless you count that it's only the "program" kids who later show up all wearing matching "colors."

Now, obviously you can teach a lot of people self-discipline and self-respect with martial arts.  I could rattle off twenty movies that teach that lesson, and I know of many programs in cities that do just that.  I think that if they cut some of the extraneous plot threads (shrink the size of the class of kids, drop the love interest, ditch the "we blame the teacher when the gang strikes back against the school for daring to teach kids things" baloney), you might have a better film here.  It just needs to decide whether it wants to simply be a martial arts extravaganza (nothing wrong with that) or a lesson about high school students learning to be mature adult men with a really neat skill they can perform.

Honestly, I would have preferred the former, because the idea of one teacher taking on an entire gang loses a lot when you take into account the other stuff happening during the story.  A dramatic scene where Louis (have I not yet mentioned Mark Dacascos' character's name yet?) sets fire to a car to get the gang leader's attention leaves you wondering things like "why doesn't this guy, who everybody in the neighborhood now knows is a target, have any police protection?  If he knows where a chop shop filled with drug money and stolen cars is, why doesn't he notify these police, especially given that the gang leader doesn't want to cause trouble with them?"

The answer to these questions is obviously "because it would get in the way of marital arts scenes," which is something most people realize right away so they don't even bother asking the question in the first place.  I just wish the movie wouldn't present the foundation for these arguments if it doesn't want us to pretend they happened at all afterward.

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