The Citizen Kane of Florida-based taekwondo movies
Intentionally making a cult classic is difficult. Most cult classics need to be created without irony and then discovered in the wild, usually years after they were first made. In the case of Miami Connection, the movie was released in 1987 and forgotten. It was an emotional and financial wipeout for star/co-director Grandmaster Y.K. Kim. He wanted to forget it completely. Then things got weird.
I remember talking to Evan Husney of Drafthouse Films before my interview with Grandmaster Y.K. Kim. He said two or three years ago they'd bought a 35mm print of Miami Connection on eBay for $50. It was for one of the Alamo Drafthouse's Reel One screenings (the first reel of a random film is shown). He had no idea what the movie was about. The seller told him, "You really don't want this," which made Husney want it more. In the first reel of Miami Connection, there's a ninja action sequence, ninja flamethrowing, and a new wave band singing about friendship. The audience went nuts.
Drafthouse Films contacted Grandmaster Kim about restoring and distributing the movie. Kim thought it was a joke, wondering why anyone wanted to release something that was awful. But eventually, after seeing a crowd respond so positively to the film, Kim was back on board the movie that ruined him.
That is the legend of Miami Connection, the Citizen Kane of Florida-based taekwondo movies.
Miami Connection is the perfect videostore rental that you never rented. In fact, the film's poster art by François Simard perfectly recreates the look of a VHS box, and the film's co-director, Woo-sang Park, was responsible for Ninja Turf (aka LA Steetfighters/Los Angeles Streetfighter), another enjoyable bit of VHS fodder. Miami Connection would be there waiting for you, dusty on the shelf, sandwiched between Megaforce and Missing in Action. You'd want to rent American Ninja or Gymkata again, but you'd know, deep in your heart, that there might have been something bananas about Miami Connection. I wonder if back in the late 80s a handful of people saw Miami Connection and got hooked by the kooky fun; I wonder if people who hated Miami Connection then (again, just a handful) get it now.
Miami Connection is the kind of movie I'd watch with friends in high school, and then subject college friends to while splitting carne asada fries and some Tecate. An arm gets cut off and a head gets sliced up and you laugh along with it. Then on comes Dragon Sound, a multiracial 80s band comprised of orphans with a female lead singer. (For this number, she's just playing back-up hand claps.) Behold: a vision of unity, harmony, family, and progress straight out of 1987 and rediscovered in the future. Their songs are about staying friends through thick and thin. There's hexagonal electric drums, a vocalist/lead guitarist who looks like John Oates's younger brother, and Grandmaster Y.K Kim plays an electric guitar like he's never seen one before.
This, by the way, is just the first 10 minutes.
The movie centers on the members of Dragon Sound and their clash against local thugs, some of whom happen to be biker ninjas. The band's sole female member and recent addition, Jane (Kathy Collier), has the hots for bandmate John (Vincent Hirsch). Unfortunately, Jane's brother (William Eagle) is a bad guy (but not a ninja). You can tell by his evil beard, his studded leather bracelet, his crossed arms, and general bad guyness. This means trouble for Dragon Sound. While this drama unfolds, keyboardist Jim (Maurice Smith) tries to learn more about his estranged dad. It leads to one of the most memorable, quotable, kitschy moments in a film full of memorable, quotable, kitschy moments.
"My mother was Korean," Jim squeaks and sobs. "And my father was black American." He's shirtless, with a towel draped over his shoulder, his jeans unbuttoned and unzipped to reveal his briefs. While Jim steps forward to the apron of some invisible stage, the rest of Dragon Sound looks on frozen. I think they're a little confused, too. The audience feels the same. "What's going on? Who knows, I can't stop watching."
Miami Connection's got it all: new wave and cocaine and martial arts and bikers and ninjas. Sure, it's aged badly, but in an interesting way -- the only way anyone can hope to age. Hell, if you're going to get old, you might as well do it right! The fashion, the hair, and the music give Miami Connection a kind of charm that you can't manufacture. People try, but they do it ironically, and irony means the death of sincerity. The secret of Miami Connection is this: the movie only works because it's totally sincere. Same goes for a movie like The Room or Troll 2. Material like that is all so earnest, so much so that you can't possibly hate it (at least if you're into movies that are so bad they're entertaining).
The action scenes are energetic and occasionally bloody. They're not as intricate as something from Hong Kong or as over the top as something from The Cannon Group (or Hong Kong). Think of the action in Miami Connection as the serviceable brand of butt-kicking found on other VHS treasures: meat, potatoes, and jump kicks. Grandmaster Kim is a 9th degree black belt in taekwondo, and Dragon Sound is comprised of his real-life students. None of them are slouches and they can all sell a punch. Apart from Kim, Hirsch and Joe Diamand (who plays Jack the drummer) are the standouts of the group, Hirsch especially. The climactic final fight is full of unbridled rage. People tear their shirts off and growl while lopping off limbs. And yet there's still room in the film for a martial arts demonstration and talk of a Dragon Sound world tour built on brotherhood and, of course, taekwondo (it's a way of life).
Grandmaster Kim shot some additional material and fight scenes on his own in order to sell the picture, which is what put him in a tough spot financially. You can sort of tell which scenes are Park's and which ones are Kim's, but it just adds to the zany appeal of the movie -- mismatched socks that still sort of go together. The version of Miami Connection that's coming out through Drafthouse Films is the US cut with Kim's additions. Park had delivered a different cut to South Korea, with a different ending. I don't know if a copy of Korean Miami Connection exists anywhere, but somewhere, perhaps stashed away in a vault, there could be someone with more hidden treasure. Maybe it's around, but on VHS. Legends can still be made. I want to believe.
Like other cult movies, it's hard for me to score Miami Connection. Cult films exist in a place beyond math, and Miami Connection is both great and not good at the same time. (Schrödinger's movie review?) All I can say is that for the full effect, Miami Connection is best seen with a group of people. Check it out at midnight in a theater, pop it into a DVD player with some friends. Whatever you do, see it with others and become your own Dragon Sound. Like the band, we are all orphans, but it's music, taekwondo, and Miami Connection that brings people, all people, together.