Miami Connection (1987)
These days it is much easier to convince an audience looking for something different to show up for your movie. The caveat, of course, is that it's going to be the type of person that likes watching cult films, and your movie, good or bad, is likely to get word of mouth treatment as long as it is entertaining. No, you are never going make a billion dollars in a weekend, but at least you are less likely to be told that your movie is trash and you should just destroy it.
Y.K. Kim was actually told this at one point when it came to Miami Connection. While promoting a book he wrote on Tae Kwon Do, Kim met director Woo-sang Park, who decided to make a movie with him. Kim wrote the script, put up the money and even re-shot some of the movie himself. He thought it was going to be the big sensation of 1987, promoting his martial arts philosophy while entertaining the masses. Instead, it failed to get proper distribution and met critical derision where it was shown.
It took over 20 years for the movie to find its audience, despite the fact that one would think "martial arts rock band vs. biker ninjas" would sell itself, even if made in stop motion with someone's G.I. Joe collection. Keep in mind the same period brought us stuff like American Ninja, Samurai Cop and a whole host of action films that ranged from vanity projects to dull, by-the-numbers ripoffs of more popular Hollywood productions. Kim was trying to make a good movie but, like many before him, this task was beyond his grasp. Instead, he ended up making something much more endearing for audiences than if he had just churned out another film about cleaning up the streets.
While the movie begins in Miami with a group of drug dealers being taken out by ninjas, the main action occurs in Orlando. It is here that the band Dragon Sound, performing songs about friendship and Tae Kwon Do, have made their home. They all live in a house and attend college together, with Mark (Y.K. Kim) as their mentor. When Jane (Kathy Collier) joins the band with her boyfriend John (Vincent Hirsch), Dragon Sound becomes the target of her brother, a wannabe gangster named Jeff (William Ergle). Jeff also happens to be a lieutenant for Yashito (Si Y Jo), who leads the ninja gang.
The rest of the band is rounded out by Jack (Joseph Diamand), Jim (Maurice Smith) and vocalist (and John Oates lookalike) Tom (Angelo Janotti). They are all a hit with the kids, but the guy they replaced at the club, also a friend of Jeff's, is not too pleased. Jeff decides they are a problem that needs to be dealt with, especially as their do-good antics may get in the way of bringing cocaine up from Miami, so Yashito agrees to let Jeff handle things.
This sets up a number of brawls, escalating to full out battle with the ninjas themselves and Mark facing off against Yashito.
The plot is all over the place, but that's kind of to be expected when a first-time writer is trying to jam in literally almost everything he can think of. But, when it comes down to it, it's really no worse than many more well-known martial arts movies; many Jackie Chan films end up with subplots that disappear as soon as the fight scene they were designed to lead up to ends. Miami Connection actually shines as a martial arts film. The fights are well-choreographed, although since Kim was going for more realism and less of the stylized fighting of the Hong Kong films it may seem a lot less fancy than most viewers would expect. The truth is Tae Kwon Do is a more utilitarian martial art and, while it has its own kind of beauty, it is made more for actual fighting and doesn't lend itself as much to the almost dance-like moves in many kung-fu films.
The problem with Miami Connection is one that Paul Morrissey often encountered in his films. If you hire people with no acting experience, you get mixed results. Occasionally you get a natural who can give a brilliant performance, but often you get situations in which you are lucky if people can recite their lines and not sound like a "real person, not an actor" in a lawyer commercial. I understand that often there may be some influence from Theodore Dreyer, but keep in mind that Dreyer mainly worked with silent films; even Vampyr is largely devoid of dialogue. If only Miami Connection largely was. Y.K. Kim, unfortunately, is one of the major offenders, as often many of his lines can be barely understood.
Even if everyone could do a competent acting job, the script would is still full of unintentionally hilarious lines. That may have been a problem when the movie first came out, but now it's part of its charm. The entire dialogue that Jim gives about trying to find his father is meant to be heartfelt, but it is awkwardly written and delivered (and blocked) in such a way that it looks like a rehearsal for a high school play. You can see Josh Diamand barely holding in his laughter through the scene, which means there was at least some awareness of the people involved about what they were doing. Kim, again, was truly trying to make a good film, and not a vanity project, and many of the people involved were his real students. Although they may have been a bit more realistic about the chances of the movie becoming a big hit than Kim was, they still did what they could and just had fun with it.
That sense of fun comes through. It helps that Woo-sang Park (who makes a cameo appearance) was an accomplished director. It is nicely filmed, lighted, framed and edited. He may not have known how the final product was going to turn out, but he also went with it, giving Kim the best job he could do. None of it is phoned in. Even Kim proves to be competent behind the camera as he helmed the final battle between Mark and Yashito as well as some other scenes that had to be redone once Park had returned to Korea.
The other aspect to this movie is Dragon Sound. Angelo Janotti does look quite a bit like John Oates, except up front and singing about how friendship is magic, while Kathy Collier does her best Pat Benatar impression in a rousing song about defeating ninjas with the power of Tae Kwon Do. The two were responsible for writing the songs and performing, while the rest of the movie has an appropriately '80s synthesizer score that is actually quite good. Still, what you're going to remember are the cheesy songs and the attempt to make the concert scenes look like Purple Rain.
No one, not even Kim this far in, recognizes Miami Connection as a technically great movie. It is, like many movies that get resurrected for many reasons after a number of years, greater than what it was meant to be. A better soundtrack and better acting would have done little more than made this another straight-to-video film, possibly harvested for a meme or two. Instead we get something uniquely original and enjoyable. It's another example of how all the Tarantinos and Rodriguezes in the world could never assemble a true movie of this caliber despite how much they may try.
Miami Connection (1987)
Time: 83 minutes
Starring: Y.K. Kim, Vincent Hirsch, Kathy Collier, Angelo Janotti, Josh Diamand, Maurice Smith, William Ergle, Sy Y Jo
Director: Woo-sang Park