The story behind Miami Connection (1987) is as fascinating as the film itself. When director Richard Park (whom ninjologists may recognise from low-budget Korean films like Kill The Ninja and Ninja Turf) saw Taekwondo master Y.K. Kim talk on a late night chat show, he knew they had to make a movie together. Kim went for the idea and then some. Fired up by Park’s enthusiasm and the promise of being able to bring the message of his martial arts to the world ala Bruce Lee, he poured every penny and idea he had into making Miami Connection. It nearly left him destitute. Unfortunately, Kim’s vision of a Taekwondo synth-rock band battling ninja bikers in Miami didn’t quite have the wide appeal he’d hoped for… In fact, it seemed to have no appeal at all. To anyone. Anywhere.
Shopping the film around several major festivals in 1987, Kim was rejected at every step. They told him his movie was “trash” and that he “should throw it away” (which is saying something, considering this was the same period when Tomas Tang and Joseph Lai could sell thirty or forty ninja films per festival). Not to be discouraged, Kim returned to Florida, re-shot many of Park’s scenes himself based on the advice he’d received and tried again. No dice. After more months of rejection, he finally made a small local sale and managed to show the film to the public on just eight screens in Orlando. Kim invited The Orlando Sentinel, hoping for a rave review, but the newspaper savaged it, hailing it “the worst film of the year” and bringing its theatrical run to an abrupt end. Only a handful of people ever saw it.
Kim, by this stage on the cusp of homelessness, cut his losses and went back to teaching martial arts full time. He found his experience so humiliating, he couldn’t face thinking about it ever again. Miami Connection was stashed away and never released in any format so missed out on even being able to ride the last ripples of the 80s VHS ninja wave (thus also missing out on riding the nostalgia wave a couple of decades later, since no one saw it the first time around). It vanished without trace, slipped between all the cracks…
…until 2009 when one of the curators at The Alamo Drafthouse (a hip cult cinema in Texas) was browsing eBay for 35mm film reels and came across a print for sale at just $50. Of course, he’d never heard of the film and could find no information anywhere but this only added to the appeal of blowing fifty bucks on it. With a warning that no one at the Drafthouse had watched it yet, so it was likely to be a complete disaster, Miami Connection was booked to show at one of the cinema’s “Weird Wednesdays” and this sense of mystery ensured it played to a sell-out crowd. They loved it. They loved it so much, it screened again and again to adoring audiences and Drafthouse decided to track down Y.K. Kim and re-release it officially.
Initially, he refused to take their calls, convinced they were trying to make fun of him and his failed film but eventually they persuaded him to come to a screening and see for himself the kind of reaction it was getting. Astonished and delighted (“I feel like I am watching a dead body walking!” he exclaimed), he agreed to let Drafthouse officially re-release Miami Connection and the rest is history. It’s now been screened all over the world and is available on a beautifully transferred Blu-Ray edition, loaded with extras. Its audience has been found. Having read this story, I was worried that the film itself couldn’t possibly live up to the magic of this perfect underdog victory saga but no. It is an utter delight of a movie and it gets the highest recommendation. An essential watch for all those studying ninjology.
The story is fairly loose. The catalyst for the chaos is a character called Jeff who is second-in-command of a gang who are described (in song, no less) as “bikers by day, ninjas by night”. As we see in the opening sequence where they hijack a cocaine shipment, duff everyone up and steal both the drugs and the money, this gang are not to be messed with. Jeff has a sister, Jane, who’s dating a bass player named John who plays in a band called Dragon Sound with Jack, Jim and (don’t worry, there are some characters whose names don’t begin with J), Tom and Mark. Mark is played by Y.K. Kim himself and is Dragon Sound’s fearless leader.
Dragon Sound are a synth-rock band with some incredibly catchy songs like Friends (“Friends through eternity / Loyalty / Honesty / We’ll stay together through thick or thin / Friends forever, we’ll be together / We’re on top, cause we play to win!”) but their unique selling point is that they’re all black belts in Taekwondo and do martial arts tricks onstage in between guitar solos. When Jeff picks a fight with John, he thinks he’s just taking on a bunch of wusses in a pop band but this actually ignites a full-blown war between Taekwondo and Ninjutsu. The aggression escalates as the film goes on, vengeance leading to vengeance upon vengeance, culminating in a fade to black and the sobering white postscript: “Only through the elimination of violence can we achieve world peace.”
The tone is unusual here because the scenes in between the fights are surprisingly sweet. There’s a subplot with Jim trying to locate his long lost father that involves a lot of tears and earnestly supportive dialogue between the various band members as they try to console him. There’s an adorable sequence where Tom, John and Mark are talking about doing a world tour where they play in all the countries each member is originally from (ie: Korea, Israel, etc) and learn about their roots while performing their songs. It’s so cute and innocent, you just want to squeal. Then five minutes later, dudes are being duffed up royally, getting their body parts torn off and throats ripped out. It’s a heady mix, for sure.
It’s also nowhere near as cheap and badly made as its reputation (and other films of its nature) might suggest. The budget was apparently $1,000,000 which, while still on the “B” end of the spectrum, is a decent amount. American Ninja, made only 3 years before, had the same budget and, sure, that movie is far slicker but it’s easy to see that some technical skill has gone into Miami Connection too. The photography and lighting are all well done and the fight sequences are, surprisingly, great. There’s some impressive Taekwondo choreography (if you ignore Kim’s bizarre and slightly gross predilection for sticking his feet in people’s faces and grabbing their noses between his toesies) and the elaborate gore effects (including a wicked surprise decapitation) are crowd-pleasers. The final fight between Dragon Sound and the ninja gang is gory as Hell and all the more entertaining for it.
What’s really special about Miami Connection though is how enormously eighties it is. It has so many pop culture touchpoints – gangs, ninjas, synthesizers, neon gyms, unironic pop songs about martial arts, headbands, shades, muscles, beaches, bikini babes, convertible sports cars, bad guys in Pink Floyd baseball caps – you’d almost think you were watching a modern film trying to recreate eighties chic by amping it up so much. And yet… Miami Connection has what all those many films seeking to pump the nostalgia gland lack: authenticity. This is a nostalgia nerd’s ultimate dream because, on one hand, it’s a completely new experience (none of us saw it the first time around) but, on the other, it comes genuinely from the eighties and genuinely from the heart. Unlike modern tributes, there’s no irony here. Miami Connection may be silly (and knowingly so) at times but it’s always sincere. Modern audiences struggle sometimes with the idea that old films can be both of those things at once. In a tedious age where “gritty = good”, some crowds assume a film is “bad” or “so bad it’s good” if it’s not always entirely serious and, in making this assumption, do fabulous genre movies like Miami Connection a disservice. Sure, the acting can be ropey (Kim himself, whose Korean accent is quite strong, flubs several lines heroically) and the story is quite ridiculous but there’s never a moment where you don’t feel like they love what they’re doing with everything they’ve got and they want you to love it too… and there’s nothing purer than that in cinema, as far as I’m concerned. Miami Connection is irresistible.