Former Green Beret Louis Stevens (Mark Dacascos) returns to his hometown of Miami after completing military service in Brazil, only to learn that his old high school has become a haven for gangs and drug dealers. After Stevens uses his Capoeira skills to kick several drug dealers off the school property, Mr. Kerrigan (Geoffrey Lewis), one of Stevens' old teachers, sees the impact that Stevens has on the students. Kerrigan gives him the task of teaching Capoeira to a handful of the worst at-risk students at the school, giving Stevens an abandoned fire station as their practice area. While doing so, Stevens earns the ire of the local drug lord, Silverio (Paco Christian Prieto), whose younger cousin, Orlando (Richard Coca), is one of Stevens' students. Silverio is also a master of Capoeira, and he engages Stevens in combat, beating him viciously. The horrified Orlando resolves to learn everything he can from Stevens. Stevens' class learns quickly, and they become very skilled at Capoeira. The principal, delighted, proposes a district-wide Capoeira program to the school board. After a field trip with his class, Stevens once again crosses swords with Silverio, who declares war against him.
Silverio's gang terrorizes the high school and sets fire to Kerrigan's classroom, resulting in the death of one of Stevens' students. As a result of this incident, Stevens is banished from the school grounds and the Capoeira program is terminated. In retaliation to the attack, Stevens sneaks into Silverio's chop shop and defeats the workers before setting a cash-filled car on fire. Furious, Silverio orders the gang to bring Stevens to him alive. Orlando flees to get help. After a desperate battle, Stevens is finally captured and brought to a bonfire, where Silverio awaits. However, Stevens' Capoeira students bar their path in an attempt to rescue their teacher. Before a brawl can ensue, the exhausted Stevens challenges Silverio to a single combat to win back his students. Despite a grueling battle, Stevens defeats Silverio before the police arrive, sending the gang scattering in all directions. With this defeat, Silverio's reputation as crime lord is gone.
Stevens' Capoeira program proves to be a success that his students graduate from high school. To celebrate, they join a Brazilian Capoeira team to perform for Stevens at the graduation ceremony.Mark Dacascos as Louis Stevens
Stacey Travis as Dianna
Paco Christian Prieto as Silverio
Geoffrey Lewis as Mr. Kerrigan
Todd Susman as Mr. Cochran
Jeffrey Anderson-Gunter as Philippe
Richard Coca as Orlando Aliveres
Roman Cardwell as Shay
Ryan Bollman as Donovan
Christian Klemash as Eddie
John Fionte as Hector Cervantes
John Gregory Kasper as Coach Kasper
Phyllis Sukoff as Mrs. Esposito
Mellow Man Ace as the Student Rapper
Sergio Kato as Silverio's Bodyguard
Though Mark Dacascos is a talented martial artist, his background is not initially in Capoeira. Just prior to his audition, he received his training from famed Capoeirista Mestre Amen Santo, who was responsible for much of the fight choreography and has a small role in the film.
The film's soundtrack features Capoeira music performed by Jibril Serapis Bey, Ilesa Anago Africa and "Amen" Santo, along with hip-hop songs by Mellow Man Ace, Iki Levy, New Version of Soul and Miami Boyz. The most prominent songs in the film are Jibril Serapis Bey's "Paranauȇ" and "Zoom-Zoom-Zoom" - the latter being more well known as the theme song for Mazda's TV commercials.
Only the Strong earned US$3,273,588 at the U.S. box office, making only more than half of its US$6 million budget.
The film was universally panned by critics, earning a 0% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on seven reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film one out of four stars, saying, "The message of a movie like Only the Strong, building on the fascist undertones of its title, is almost cruel in its stupidity and naivete. It's almost a relief that few people in the audience for such a film ever remember if it even had a message or not." Joe Brown of The Washington Post also wrote a scathing review, saying it "relies slightly less relentlessly on violence for its own sake than most in this genre, but the film is clumsily assembled and edited, heavy on the slow-mo, and its simplistic story plays like 'The Kids From Fame' armed with very sharp knives."