Monday, January 12, 2015

Monday Madness: Miami Connection

How the heck did I not know about Miami Connection?  The title drifted across my plate a couple of years ago, something about a martial arts rock band fighting ninjas with an 80's vibe.  But there's been a lot of throwback 80's in the last few years.  Movies like The Expendables, Hobo with a Shotgun and Manborg.  A Cannon films documentary.  Video game Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon with music score by Power Glove.  Blood Bros' playlists on Mad Decent.  All of those VHS style trailers.  Little did I know that Miami was a film actually made in the 80's, released and quickly forgotten about in 1987 and by some minor miracle was given a second chance!  Thanks to Turner Classic Movies Underground banner and a 2:00AM airing, now I know.  And knowing is half the battle...

The story begins with immigrant and Tae Kwon Do master Y.K. Kim, who landed in the United States from South Korea in 1978.  By the mid-80's he was kicking ass with a chain of successful martial arts schools, public speaking, authoring books and generally being liked by those around him for his positive outlook on life and charitable efforts around central Florida.  While on a television program in South Korea, action movie director Woo-sang Park figured he'd made a good cinematic hero and the two set off to create a flick that would encapsulate Kim's philosophy of friendship, loyalty and martial arts.  Against the advice of his closest friends, Kim sold his car, mortgaged his home and franchise to fund Miami Connection.  With no prior background in filmmaking or even an interest in it, the shoot quickly devolved into a nightmare.  There was no script, director Park spoke little English and the entire cast was more or less farmed from Kim's network of 10,000 students.  With that pedigree you'd expect a fun home movie but instead Kim hoped Miami would be a blockbuster film that showed the greatness of Tae Kwon Do to the world.  What he got was a near $1 million dollar catastrophe that almost crippled his life and sent him into bankruptcy.

Miami Connection is the story of Dragon Sound, a synth-rock band made up of Tae Kwon Do blackbelts.  They jam on guitars and do kicks on stage.  Meanwhile, some ninjas kill off some local drug dealers and the band Dragon Sound replaced wants their gig back, teaming up with the bad guys to snuff out the band.  Mark (Kim) and his bandmates are all orphans who live and train together.  Jim (Maurice Smith), has been trying to find his black-American dad for some time and finally has a lead.  Meanwhile John (Vincent Hirsch) is trying to get to know Jane (Kathy Collier) whose brother happens to be leader of the evil gang.  Martial arts brawling, shirtless mail reading, hardcore Tae Kwon Do demonstrations, catchy synth pop, bros pooling money for a suit, poor English and of course, ninja mayhem ensues.  Miami Connection should not be a good movie or a good time.  Story developments go nowhere, the acting is hammy, random montages and vignettes add nothing...But somehow, the sheer earnestness of the cast and ridiculous concept shines through the amateur production values.  We don't get shoddy sets or cheap tricks to pull off elaborate stunts.  The practical streets, woods, creeks and college campus locations all give Miami Connection a texture that rises above a Chuck Norris or Bruce Lee imitator or ironic love letter made today.

The fights in the flick are pretty solid in that 80's, awkward, kinda telegraphed, wait for it style. Given that the entire main cast are blackbelts, they get to show off their high kicking TKD skills and even fight with swords in a bloody final confrontation against the ninjas.  Kim is not exactly the world's most charismatic leading man but really he's just there to support his friends and kick ass, which he does just fine.  Two of his students turned co-stars, Angelo Janotti and Kathy Collier, were musicians in their own right and provided two memorable tracks; Friends and Against a Ninja.  Friends reminds you of Nowhere Fast from Streets of Fire a bit and has awesomely simple lyrics like "loyalty, honesty, we'll stick together through thick or thin" with it's hand clapping drum beat.  Against a Ninja starts with extreme guitar riffs and more hand clapping and lyrics about you know, ninjas being evil. 

At the end of production, Park departed for Korea and Kim set about trying to sell the movie for exhibition.  He estimates 100 companies turned him down, told him it was trash and that he shouldn't spend another cent.  That seems pretty hardcore considering some of the low budget turkeys Cannon was producing at the same time.  I guess those just had more famous and bankable actors.  Feeling like a failure, Kim took the film to Cannes to drum up interest but struck out once more.  One insider suggested several changes and Kim along with co-star/student Joseph Diamond read some books on writing screenplays and directing films to realize it needed things like a beginning, middle and end then reshot scenes.  One distributor finally ponied up $100,000 to release the film in 8 theaters around Orlando with Kim working overtime to promote the flick via store demonstrations and local media.  But a prominent local critic called Miami the worst film of the year before it's release and after 3 weeks, the movie was pulled and forgotten.  Kim rebuilt his empire, stronger than ever and continued to spread the gospel of personal, financial and emotional fitness.

Cut to 2009, Alamo Drafthouse programmer Zack Carlson came across a print of the film on eBay and bought it for $50 bucks.  After audiences responded well to the first reel, Carlson and his boss Evan Husney began their quest to redistribute the film.  Kim thought it was a joke and hung up on Husney several times before being informed that Miami Connection had all the makings of a cult classic a la the also forgotten Troll 2.  From there the film played in several film festivals and midnight screenings across the country to fevered reaction, several with Kim and cast in attendance, demonstrating moves and even playing Friends on stage.  Today you can get a special edition blu-ray, vinyl soundtrack, band shirts and much more.  That's the power of movies, baby.  And a nice spinning roundhouse kick.

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