Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Guest Review: Miami Connection (1987)

by ScottDS

According to the American Film Institute, Citizen Kane is the best movie ever made. According to the British Film Institute, Vertigo is the best movie ever made. And according to the fickle users of the IMDb, The Shawshank Redemption is the best movie ever made (as of this writing). But let me tell you: none of those films can compare to the experience that is Miami Connection.

Watch this (slightly NSFW) trailer. I’ll be right here.

The Netflix synopsis might do the best job of describing this wonderful mid-80s time capsule: “A martial arts rock band metes out crime-crushing justice to the motorcycle ninjas who have seized control of Florida's narcotics trade.” The band is called Dragon Sound, and its members are played by Y.K. Kim (as Mark), Vincent Hirsch (as John), Joseph Diamond (as Jack), Maurice Smith (as Jim), and Angelo Janotti (as Tom). In addition to the band, these guys are UCF students and black belts in taekwondo… and they’re adult orphans who all live together. The main villains are Yashito (Siyung Jo) and his second-in-command, whose exotic ninja name is… Jeff (William Ergle). Jeff doesn’t appreciate the fact that his sister Jane (Kathy Collier) is dating Dragon Sound’s John. Meanwhile, a rival band asks Jeff and his gang for help in getting rid of Dragon Sound. Blood is spilled, songs are sung, and Jim even manages to locate his long-lost father along the way. The film ends with a climactic battle in a park between Dragon Sound and Yashito’s goons. Mark kills Yashito, Jim is reunited with his father, and they all live happily ever after.
Okay… I see the looks on your faces. This requires an explanation. Miami Connection is a real movie. It was filmed in and around Orlando in the mid-80s. Y.K. Kim, in addition to playing Mark, wrote and produced the film and it was directed by the late Korean filmmaker Woo-sang Park (using the American pseudonym Richard Park). Y.K. Kim was (and is) a taekwondo Grandmaster. He emigrated from Korea to the U.S. in 1984 without a nickel in his pocket. Today, he makes his living as a motivational guru, publisher, and martial arts promoter. His sole goal in making Miami Connection was to promote taekwondo in America. By all accounts, he had no idea what the hell he was doing. The film opened in only a few Central Florida theaters – one local paper labeled it the worst movie of the year – before it went into obscurity...

...until a man named Zach Carlson discovered it in 2009. Carlson is an employee of the Alamo Drafthouse movie theater chain and was looking for movies for their new Drafthouse Films distribution division when he stumbled across Miami Connection on eBay. Someone was selling a print of the film for $50. Carlson purchased it sight unseen, despite a warning from the seller asking if he was serious. A 2010 screening at the Drafthouse went over like gangbusters and the rest is history. They reached out to Y.K. Kim, who assumed it was a joke and hung up several times. Eventually they made a deal and they even got the whole band back together for a screening at the Drafthouse’s Fantastic Fest event. (Most of the guys still live in Orlando and teach at Kim’s school.)

And now, I’m going to get a little post-modern. My friends and I saw the trailer online... and we assumed it was a joke. A movie made today, but in the style of an 80s martial arts flick, complete with film grain, faded colors, bad wigs, and copious amounts of CGI tinkering to restore the Orlando skyline to its 1980s look. This had to be a wonderful parody – after all, there was no way any of us would’ve missed this movie had it actually existed in the 80s! So I sat down with two like-minded (read: warped) friends and watched it. For the first 30 minutes, we were looking for anything anachronistic: a modern car in the background, a building that didn’t yet exist, etc. There’s a scene in a UCF computer lab and we assumed it was mostly stock footage with the actors shot separately in front of a bluescreen.

But no... this was real. We figured it would’ve taken too much time and cost too much money to make a movie today that looked this authentic. Not even Spielberg or Zemeckis could get it this perfect! And if they did, they’d be showered with every tech award out there: visual effects, costume design, art direction, etc. So we admitted we were wrong. This was a movie made in the 80s and forgotten about. And not just a movie made in the 80s, but made in a city where I actually lived on two separate occasions. The club that Dragon Sound performs at is on Church Street – I was just there two weeks ago! It’s still paved with cobblestones, too.
As for the movie, it’s awful... and awfully wonderful. The acting is amateurish at best but considering none of these guys are actors (and only Angelo Janotti is a musician), I can’t really nitpick. In a world of talkers (and hack bloggers), these guys actually went out and DID something. Kim spent everything he had on the movie and was heartbroken by the negative press and lack of box-office success. Like most amateur movies, there are shots that cut away too quickly, shots that last too long, shots that simply don’t belong, odd framing, awkward character blocking, muddled sound, and a general lack of polish. But this movie is so sincere and the guys are so likable and innocent – one of them refers to the bad guys’ “stupid cocaine” – that you can’t help but like it.

Ah, the guys. We see Dragon Sound perform their signature tunes (“Friends” and “Against the Ninja”) and it’s obvious that only one of them is playing an instrument correctly. Jim gets a letter about his father and delivers a heartfelt monologue that has to be seen to be believed. Jim’s father is played by a guy who’s younger than the guy playing his son! And for some reason, most of the guys walk around shirtless. When Jim gets a letter in the mail, the guys rush outside in various states of undress and I think one of them is just wearing a towel. At one point, Mark feeds two of the guys grapes… by hand. In another scene, Jack tells Mark and John about his idea of taking Dragon Sound around the world to promote peace and goodwill. “We’d visit all the countries where our parents came from. We’ll play in Israel. That’s where my parents are from.” You know Israel, the taekwondo capital of the world! And the villains… they’re so over the top, it’s amazing. You’ve got Yashito’s ninjas and Jeff’s redneck goons, who have nothing better to do than stand around goofing off. And bikers. Lots of bikers.
I’m not sure I have anything more to say. It’s a miracle this movie came back from the dead. Not every movie that’s made is released, let alone remembered years later. For every scrappy indie movie like Clerks (for example), there are dozens of others that languish in obscurity. I have to admire the makers of this movie: despite an obvious lack of filmmaking skills, they forged ahead and made something people seem to like. I’ll end with a quote from Zach Carlson:

“Eighty percent of movies that come out are pretty much lousy by some barometer, but some are found and championed. Why does a movie like Troll 2 bring people back? It's not because it's the only shitty movie that's been made in the last decade. It’s because there’s something charming about it. I think there’s now such an awareness of the possibility of irony that you can’t easily get a movie like this. You need somebody who’s on a different plane than the rest of us.”
Friends through eternity /
Loyalty, honesty /
We'll stay together /
Through thick or thin.


Tennessee Jed said...

one never knows where one will find the next true camp!

Anonymous said...

Agreed! Again, this all started (for us) with an awesome movie trailer - the same one I linked to above. I'm not even the biggest kung-fu fan in the world but I seem to gravitate towards... I'll just call it the "idiosyncratic."

What a world... :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I've never heard of this, but your article absolutely makes me want to see this. This sounds like one of those so bad it's interesting films.

Rustbelt said...

Scott, Andrew, you might be interested to know that Red Letter Media had a few things to say about this film in their Best of the Worst series. LINK (Warning: NSFW)

A "horrible glory" indeed...

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

As I said, it's available on Netflix Instant. And you can also buy a copy directly from the Alamo Drafthouse. They even released it on a limited edition VHS: "For those who want to view MIAMI CONNECTION in all it's 80's-era authentic glory." :-)

Anonymous said...

Rustbelt -

Thanks for the link. I'm gonna have to check that out later after school/work.

tryanmax said...

I was sold when you told me the band's name was "Dragon Sound." How perfect!

Anonymous said...

tryanmax -

You can even buy the Dragon Sound shirts they wear in the film. My friends have threatened to dress up like the band for conventions... and it'd be interesting to see who gets the reference!

And yeah, this movie is easy to sell to a certain kind of person. :-)

Anonymous said...

Off to work, will be back later. :-)

Kit said...

Looks like fun.

Anonymous said...

Kit -

It is. And I just watched the video at Rustbelt's link... hilarious!

Rustbelt said...

Scott, glad you liked the link! BTW, when the 'old band' leader confronts the bar owner in the 'non-outtake' scene, is it just me or or does he tickle the owner when he throws him? 'Cause the bar owner seems to be enjoying it a little too much! (I think I bruised my jaw when it hit the floor!)

This movie isn't off the rails. It's full-on batshine the best possible way!

Anonymous said...

Rustbelt -

I cracked up for 5 minutes straight when they were watching the Hard Ticket to Hawaii clip with the guy talking about, "These snakes have been injected with a toxin taken from cancer-infested rats." :-)

Anonymous said...

Holy shit I have never heard of this, but after watching the trailer I want to see it.

This part of your article got me confused "In addition to the band, these guys are UCF students and black belts in taekwondo" I read it as UFC students as in Ultimate Fighting Championship not UCF and was about to call bullshit as the UFC didn't exist until 1993. But the thing that really threw me was that Maurice Smith is the name of a real UFC Heavy Weight Champion....

So I had this picture of a future UFC HW champ doing a dodgy 80s martial arts movie... I had to read it a few times to figure it out.

Anyhow I'm interest and I will find a way to see this movie and relive my child hood memories. I grew up watching any Martial Arts movies I could lay my hands on.


Anonymous said...

Scott -

That's my fault - I should've specified that UCF was the University of Central Florida.

I think it's safe to say you'll enjoy this movie! :-)

Retro Hound said...

This is quite popular in some corners of the web. I watched it a while back on Netflix and was blown away! How fun! Here's how I started my review: "Miami Connection is proof that you don't need actors, dialog, or a budget to make an entertaining movie."

Anonymous said...

Retro -

It helps! :-)

And it might be worth noting that this film is entertaining but for mostly the wrong reasons.

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