Miami Connection (1987/1988) -****½
I would never have watched Miami Connection if left to my own devices. You may not be able to judge a book by its cover, but you frequently can judge a movie by its title, at least to the extent of predicting its overall tenor and subject matter, and Miami Connection is an inauspicious title indeed for my purposes. Especially in conjunction with a 1986 copyright date (although the film apparently didn’t assume its current form until the following year), it conjures up visions of Andy Sidaris, of Albert Pyun’s crime movies, of the very worst that Concorde-New Horizons had to offer. Say “Miami Connection,” and I immediately think of some no-talent goat pizzle trying with wearying desperation to impersonate Michael Mann, and that’s not something I ever care to see. Fortunately, however, I have friends whose tastes in cinematic garbage run in exactly that direction, who watched Miami Connection hoping for a dire “Miami Vice” knockoff, and went proselytizing on its behalf when it turned out to be something far more exciting. Eventually, Miami Connection won enough converts among people I trusted that I gave it a try myself, and now I aim to pass the memetic contagion on to you. But before we can properly take up the subject of Miami Connection, I must first introduce you to Y. K. Kim.
Wait— who? Yes. Exactly. Y. K. Kim’s is one of those heartening stories which demonstrate that America’s corporate overlords have not yet succeeded in closing off every avenue of advancement for ordinary people— except that “ordinary” doesn’t seem like quite the right word for him. When Kim emigrated from South Korea to the United States (with a detour through Argentina, of all places, along the way) in 1977, he had next to no money, next to no command of the English language, and no friends or family on this side of the Pacific. What he did have was an impressive mastery of tae kwon do, at a time when the people of his adopted country were becoming weirdly infatuated with the Asian martial arts. Settling in Orlando, Florida, Kim supported himself as a tae kwon do instructor, eventually opening a kwan (or school) of his own. Kim also worked hard to raise American awareness of tae kwon do as something distinct from karate, founding a national outreach organization for his fellow instructors and practitioners in the mid-1980’s. As his kwan grew into a regional franchise, Kim naturally began to spend more time administering his little empire than teaching combat techniques, but he never lost that urge to share with others the benefit of his learning and experience. That eventually led him to write a book on business management, which led in turn to a second career as a motivational speaker. The latter is Kim’s main gig these days, although he did keep control of his original kwan when he sold off the rest of the franchise to concentrate on giving pep talks to wannabe captains of industry.
The really interesting part of Kim’s tale begins in 1986, though, when he was first and foremost a martial arts missionary. Word of his work popularizing tae kwon do in the States filtered back to South Korea, and Kim was invited to go on TV back home to talk about the project. Among the Koreans who tuned in was filmmaker Woo-Sang Park, who got it into his head that he and Kim could help each other out. Park was looking for an international breakout; Kim, meanwhile, had to be aware of the role movies had played in turning kung fu, karate, and ninjutsu into household words in the US. What if Park came to America, and helped Kim make a tae kwon do movie?
Kim loved the idea when Park got in touch with him, and soon he was hard at work on a script for Park to direct, pitting a group of tae kwon do masters against the two favorite scourges of 80’s action cinema: cocaine dealers and ninjas. He recruited the cast from his kwan’s roster of pupils, and when it turned out that some of the people he had in mind for the leading roles were in a band together, he wrote that angle into the story, too. The trouble was, Kim didn’t know anything about writing for the screen. Forget all the abstruse page-formatting conventions and whatnot; Kim didn’t even realize that he was supposed to invent specific dialogue for his actors to recite! He’d never consciously thought about cinematic story structure, and since he could count on one hand the movies he’d seen in his entire life, he didn’t have sufficient cultural background to wing it. Also, Woo-Sang Park didn’t speak a word of English, so he was little help in the dialogue-writing deparment. Furthermore, that language barrier would obviously make it doubly difficult for Park to direct a bunch of monolingual American non-actors. So it’s not altogether surprising that Miami Connection is barely even a movie as that term is generally understood, or that Kim found it next to impossible to convince theater owners to show it. It played the Cannes Film Festival in 1987 (which sounds prestigious until you remember that Basket Case played Cannes, too), scored bookings on a single-digit number of screens in central Florida during 1988, and then vanished off the face of the Earth— until now, that is. Now, thanks to the intrepid crap-hunters at the Alamo Drafthouse, who acquired a print in a blind-buy of film reels destined for disposal a couple years ago, Miami Connection has risen anew from the pits of obscurity to claim its rightful place as a classic of big-hearted ineptitude.
Now as you may recall, Miami in the 1980’s was the cocaine capital of the United States. It was also a virtual war zone, as the Cuban gangs who had controlled the coke trade in the 70’s increasingly lost ground to hyper-violent Colombian upstarts typified by the utterly terrifying Griselda Blanco. (You have no idea how hard it is right now to resist launching off on a page-long tangent about her…) Miami Connection, however, would have us believe that there’s yet another new player in town, and one even deadlier than the Colombians. That would be the motorcycle-riding ninja clan led by Mr. Yashito (Si Y Jo), whom we see swoop down on a remarkably diverse Colombian gang in the midst of accepting a shipment of drugs from back home. Yashito and his army help themselves to the merchandise after exterminating buyers and sellers alike.
Meanwhile, in Orlando, local hard rock band Dragon Sound have scored a regular gig at Park Avenue, the self-proclaimed hottest nightclub in central Florida, just in time to debut their new singer, Jane (Kathy Collier). The other five members— singer/songwriter/lead guitarist Tom (Angelo Janotti), rhythm guitarist Mark (Y. K. Kim), bass player John (Vincent Hirsh, later of Dragons Never Die), keyboardist Jim (Sci-Fighter’s Maurice Smith), and drummer Jack (Joseph Diamond)— are a very tightly-knit unit: all orphans, all roommates, all students at the University of Central Florida, all devotees of tae kwon do. Jane, too, is an orphan and a UCF student, and her dating John is probably a fair enough substitute for living in the Dragon Sound house; presumably the guys will bring her up to speed on the tae kwon do part later. This first performance with Jane is a huge success, both financially and in terms of exposure, but it also makes Dragon Sound two sets of enemies. First of all, they got their big break (well, it looks big to them) at the expense of another act. We never hear the club’s previous house band play, but from the way their leader (Jack McLaughlin) berates Dragon Sound, I gather they were doing more of a Bob Seger, 70’s dad-rock sort of thing. Those guys want their old position back, and if they can’t get satisfaction on that front, they’ll settle for revenge against the usurpers. Meanwhile, tonight’s show also brings Jane’s romance with John to the attention of her violently jealous older brother, Jeff (William Eagle). That’s a much more serious problem, because Jeff leads a powerful street gang that deals most of Orlando’s recreational pharmaceuticals. And as if he weren’t bad enough already, Jeff’s (wait for it…) Miami connection is none other than Mr. Yashito.
It’s difficult to describe the rest of the film coherently, because Miami Connection simply isn’t in any way coherent. These are the general contours, though. When the former Park Avenue house band can’t get their gig back, either with remonstrance or with violence, they go gunning for Dragon Sound, hoping to chase them out of town. Of course, they and all their friends together are no match for five masters of tae kwon do, so they enlist Jeff and his gang for backup. Jeff quickly discovers that he’s just as far out of his league as the disgruntled dad-rockers, and eventually Yashito and his army of biker ninjas have to step in. Along the way, there are several underdeveloped subplots, a couple of which actually reach some semblance of fruition. Jeff’s intervention in the battle of the bands drives a wedge between John and Jane. Dragon Sound plans a world tour to preach the dual gospels of rock and roll and tae kwon do to the peoples of their respective ancestral homelands; sadly, Jim is not a party to these discussions, so we never do learn which part of Subsaharan Africa they propose to visit along with Italy, Ireland, Israel, and South Korea. Most importantly (or at any rate, most time-consumingly), Jim reveals that he isn’t really an orphan at all. His mother is dead, sure, but his father— a soldier who was stationed in South Korea during the late 60’s— merely abandoned the family around the time of Jim’s birth, and is thus presumably still out there somewhere. Now Jim wants to find him, so he’s been nagging the Defense Department for information. Probably he’d have somewhat better luck if he nagged the Veterans Administration instead, but I don’t think Kim and Park know about them. In any event, I don’t recommend you invest too much hope in any of those detours linking up with the main story in any serious way.
Speaking of detours, you don’t have to pay very close attention to Miami Connection to notice that such story as it possesses keeps getting interrupted, not just by misplaced scenes advancing the aforementioned subplots, but also by completely self-contained non-sequiturs. Inevitably, a couple of those are Dragon Sound performances. Equally inevitably, others are martial arts training vignettes, showing both the biker ninjas and the members of Dragon Sound honing their skills. With those bits, the issue is less their presence than their placement. A long sequence of Mark sparring first with Jack and then with John comes at a time when all three men’s capabilities have been amply demonstrated by the street rumble against the rival band and their friends, and thus seems totally unnecessary at first glance. To understand why this scene exists, you have to look at it in conjunction with the movie’s epigraph: “Only through the elimination of violence can we achieve world peace.” That is, it was important to Kim to show tae kwon do being practiced outside the context of pitched battles against thugs and criminals, so some depiction of Dragon Sound respectfully and amicably punching and kicking each other had to be stuck in here somewhere. It’s just that he and Park put it in completely the wrong place from the perspective of narrative development. The same goes for the second nightclub scene, when Dragon Sound plays “Against the Ninja.” The lyrics to that song sum up the entire movie, so it really should be the last thing we see before the closing credits. But instead, “Against the Ninja” comes at right about the halfway point— when most of the events that it explicitly references have yet to occur!
Then there are some tangents that have absolutely nothing to do with anything, and which wouldn’t make sense no matter where in the movie they were inserted. In one of them, Dragon Sound goes to the beach, where John and Jane make out in the surf while the other guys ogle bikini chicks and say insightful things like “They don’t make buns like that at the bakery!” In another, a bunch of hooligans we’ve never seen before (and will never see again) attempt to jump their check at the restaurant run by Mark’s uncle, Song (played by Park himself), forcing him to display his own tae kwon do prowess. And weirdest of all, Yashito and his men go to a biker rally. Some degree of plot advancement does go on there, in that the rally is where Jeff meets Yashito to report his ongoing troubles with Dragon Sound, but that occupies only a brief moment of a sequence otherwise devoted to gray-bearded Hell’s Angels popping drunken wheelies in a gravel parking lot while biker mamas with no muscle tone flash their tits at the camera. I’m well accustomed to scenes that exist solely as a vehicle for their exploitation content, of course, but this feels like an exploitation bit from a completely different movie.
With everything I’ve said thus far, it would be easy to imagine that Miami Connection does nothing right whatsoever. Remarkably, though, that isn’t true. For all its disjointedness and lack of story momentum, this film displays a very Asian sense of pace, with major action set-pieces coming along at impressively brief intervals. Miami Connection sports no fewer than seven big fights: Yashito’s army vs. the Colombians; the former Park Avenue house band vs. the club owner and his bouncers (my favorite of the bunch, mainly because of the dazzling display of anti-acting that leads up to it); Dragon Sound vs. the other band; Dragon Sound vs. Jeff’s gang in the rail yard; Uncle Song vs. the check-jumpers; Dragon Sound vs. Jeff’s gang in the junkyard; and the final battle between Dragon Sound and the biker ninjas. (The latter naturally resolves at the end into a duel between Mark and Yashito, but that wasn’t originally part of the film. It was added almost a year after principal photography wrapped, in response to the disdainful reception that Miami Connection faced at Cannes, and if you look closely, you can see that it isn’t really Si Y Jo anymore under Yashito’s white hood. In the DVD commentary, Kim recalls William Eagle taking Jo’s place, but I rather suspect it was really Vincent Hirsh. The eyes and nose of Emergency Backup Yashito look more like his than Eagle’s, and there’s a moment when the villain duplicates, down to the slightest gesture, a set of John’s moves from the earlier sparring scene.) That’s a phenomenal amount of mayhem for a movie that clocks in under 90 minutes, especially when you consider that it doesn’t count the aforementioned training sequences or a brief montage of Dragon Sound giving a board-breaking exhibition between songs on the Park Avenue stage. It’s also worth pointing out that this movie’s fight choreography is consistently excellent, even in honky-on-honky bouts like the dustup inside the club. And even the most dubious choice on the action front is interesting in light of future genre developments. A decade and more before The Matrix, Miami Connection uses a primitive version of bullet time to emphasize the precision timing of Mark’s tae kwon do.
The other thing Miami Connection has going for it— although it’s hard to call this a mark of quality in the usual sense— is its utter and guileless sincerity. There’s no mistaking that this misbegotten trifle meant the world to its creators at the time, or that they believed fully in Dragon Sound’s ethos of overcoming adversity through the purifying spiritual discipline of tae kwon do. And really, why wouldn’t they believe, since that’s exactly how Y. K. Kim transformed himself from a penniless and anonymous immigrant into a pillar of the Orlando business community and a father figure to some 10,000 students of the Korean martial arts? It’s tempting to scoff at the naivety of Kim’s credo, and it’s more than justified to scoff at the even greater naivety with which that credo is put forward in Miami Connection. I mean, this is a movie that follows 86 minutes of virtually non-stop brawling, shooting, and dismemberment with a plea for the global elimination of violence. But it’s simultaneously a movie made by people who mostly had no idea what the fuck they were doing, who went ahead and did it anyway because they also had no idea that they had no idea. I’m a sucker for a D.I.Y. success story, even and perhaps especially when “success” means nothing more than completing a project that by all rights should have blown up in its undertakers’ faces.