Every so often, a film comes along that is revered not because of the filmmaking mastery that is on display, but rather because of the charming ineptitude that was exhibited during its creation. "Bad" movies get made all the time; some are misunderstood classics that will eventually gain respect, while some remain an example of talent simply missing the mark. Others films gleefully approach the concept of making intentionally bad cinema as a means of garnering attention – while some use it as justification for a costly misfire that actually is just plain bad (There have been plenty of examples recently, but I'll let you decide for yourself which best describes the equally divisive 'Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter' and 'Lockout'.)
In the end, it comes down to how the movie makes you feel. What may be initially perceived as a bad film, might actually find a devoted audience roused by the delightful sincerity and unbridled enthusiasm of those kicking, punching and screaming their way through something called 'Miami Connection.' The fact that the film involves a synth-pop band called Dragon Sound, battling a villain named Jeff and a group of motorcycle-ninjas on the streets of Miami in the late '80s, doesn't hurt things either. Despite how many have described the film up to this point, there is one simple fact that cannot be denied: While the filmmaking technique and prowess behind the movie is amateurish at best, it manages to have entertainment value in spades.
So how does this film wind up being such a joy to watch? Primarily it's because 'Miami Connection' feels wonderfully oblivious. The film's lead, Y.K. Kim (who would eventually go on to re-edit, re-write and direct the necessary re-shoots, following a disastrous first attempt to sell and distribute the property), had reportedly only seen six movies prior to making his directorial debut. To that end, there is a great deal of innocence (or what some may call naivety - which I may be guilty of for buying into that story, but...), in the way the movie has been produced. But in that element lies its greatest attribute – sheer enthusiasm. In roughly 83 minutes, Kim – a Korean immigrant who spoke very little English at the time – plays Mark, the leader of Dragon Sound, with genuine sincerity and conviction that it resonates to this day. Watch the scene where Jim (Maurice Smith) celebrates finding his father, and just try to doubt that Mark (or Y.K., really) doesn't believe with every ounce of his being that this is truly something worth celebrating. That kind of unashamed passion is hard to come by in even the most celebrated of motion pictures.
The basic plot is thin at best, but that's okay. The members of Dragon Sound wind up on the wrong side of some cocaine dealing ninjas, a biker gang and a royally miffed rival band that lost their headlining gig to the dulcet tones of Tom (Angelo Janotti) and Jane (Kathy Collier) singing "kiddie" tunes like 'Friends' and 'Against the Ninja.' To make matters worse, Jane's older brother Jeff (William Eagle – credited as William Ergle), is in league with the cocaine ninjas, and though he's paying her college tuition, disapproves of his little sister dating John (Vincent Hirsch) – Dragon Sound's resident Michael Phelps look-alike.
The story behind the resurrection of 'Miami Connection' is nearly as charming as the one behind the film's inception. In 2009, Zack Carlson, a movie programmer for the Alamo Drafthouse, stumbled across a 35mm print of the film being sold on eBay for a mere $50. With little information to go on, Carlson snagged the print with the intention of showing it during the theater's Weird Wednesday series that serves as a platform for similarly unseen exploitation or just plain bizarre films of the '70s and '80s. The first screening was apparently an unmitigated success, in which the audience genuinely responded to the flick. Soon after, Drafthouse Films – the distribution side of the Alamo Drafthouse – scheduled the film to be screened at the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival, where the movie was met with even more adoration.
So, finally, so many years after having been rejected by Hollywood for his "unspeakably bad" martial arts film, Y.K. Kim managed to see it accepted by a whole new audience, in a whole new way.
Of course the question now becomes whether the enjoyment of 'Miami Connection' comes solely from an ironic, finger-pointing sense of superiority – and that's certainly an element, to be sure – or if it is genuinely entertaining. The film is incredibly cheesy; it's earnest in a way that our cynical minds seemingly cannot accept without a hefty dose of snickering and eye-rolling. But that's not where the true enjoyment of the film comes from. There's satisfaction to be found everywhere. Yes, a lot of it comes from the over-acting, the under-acting, the silly songs of Dragon Sound, and the copious amounts of facial hair, but the real pleasure stems from the fact that once you start the film, you'll find it very hard to turn it off. It's utterly captivating in a way that few films are. Sure, some of that is probably the irony talking, but that doesn't explain the genuine reverence some have developed for this little lost treasure.
Frankly, calling 'Miami Connection' "bad" doesn't really serve the film in the appropriate way. As mentioned above, it all comes down to feeling. If you get a real kick out of watching the orphaned Tae Kwon Do-masters of Dragon Sound cleaning up the streets of Miami, then Y.K. Kim and his students/fellow actors have done their jobs very well. They've made a pleasurable bit of entertainment that will no doubt be a point of discussion for years to come. It may have taken decades to get to this point, but seeing fans find such delight in their '80s action extravaganza, probably makes it well worth the wait.
Watch it ironically, if you must, but just watch it. Chances are, this will be one of the more memorable and entertaining films you've seen all year.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Miami Connection' comes as a single Blu-ray disc in a clear keep case that'll make this little gem easier to find on your Blu-ray shelf (if you're not averse to such differences). Inside you'll find a 14-page booklet that details Y.K. Kim's struggle to make and release the movie, and it's subsequent resurrection thanks to the Alamo Drafthouse's Zack Carlson. Inside are several high quality stills from the film and a quote from Kim as well. This edition also includes an insert with a code to download a digital version of the movie from Drafthouse Films. On a separate note, the packaging lists the audio as DTS-HD MA 2.0, but it appears to be Dolby Digital 2.0.
One of the first things this Blu-ray warns the viewer about is how 'Miami Connection' was all but lost due to time, apathy, and mother nature, which means this reissue from Drafthouse Films is actually comprised of the best of what had not yet been destroyed. So, naturally, there are segments – especially early on – where the film's image approaches bootleg quality, or the kind of picture you would likely remember if you've ever borrowed a very well used VHS copy of a movie dubbed from television. Dirt, scratches, and other artifacts are prominent in some places, and while it's noticeable from a quality review, or high definition standpoint, the decay of the film never acts as a deterrent from the viewer's enjoyment. As you can no doubt guess, it actually enhances it.
Considering the amount of time and money some filmmakers have invested to help give their image a used-and-abused Grindhouse look that's part of the overall appeal, 'Miami Connection' – like everything else that's enjoyable about the movie – seems to have come about this attribute almost by accident. Somehow, the wear and tear and the blatant shift in quality between certain segments that illustrate just how much of the reissue is comprised of different prints. In the end, they simply add to the hilarious mystique of the flick, and only serves to make it that much more fun to watch.
Still, there are segments where the image looks as good as it possibly can, and actually benefits from the HD upgrade. Ultimately, though, the Blu-ray is simply an uneven affair when it comes to the overall quality of the picture. Colors can often times look a little washed out, and the overall image is occasionally under saturated, but there are portions where they are also quite vivid, and things like the impossibly red hue of blood spurting from a neck wound or ruining the very Miami-esque all-white ninja garb of the big bad, stand out incredibly well. Other things like the lush greenery and palm trees also manage to seem vivid and strong.
In these segments, detail and texture are good, but it never becomes great. This is likely due to the quality of the film stock 'Miami Connection' was initially shot on, and not the transfer, or the telltale signs of time. However, overall, contrast levels aren't quite up to snuff; whites are more often than not too high and black levels are murky, with a tendency to swallow up the image in low light.
In the end, very few people are going to be disappointed in 'Miami Connection' because of the image quality – this is one of those examples where the pleasure is derived mostly from it surviving at all. Pristine picture is always better, but for a low budget movie approaching its third decade, there are occasions where the image holds up remarkably well.
'Miami Connection' comes with a Dolby Digital 2.0 mix that may not be the height of home theater technology, but actually sounds pretty good. Again, the appeal here is in the feeling of nostalgia one gets while listening to the '80s rock, the stunted addition of sound effects and by watching as the obviously looped dialogue sometimes fails to properly synch with the actors' lips.
There are plenty of examples where this 2.0 track actually sounds decent. The two full-length performances by Dragon Sound, in which they perform the aforementioned hits, 'Friends' and 'Against the Ninja,' will certainly have you singing along. This is easily the most impressive portion of the audio mix; the "live" music sounds good, there are examples of real clarity and depth from time to time, and the vocals are easy to understand.
But this 2.0 track does some solid work with the dialogue as well. Never before have so many botched, butchered and nearly truncated lines sounded so clear. Mark my words, no one has heard Maurice Smith exclaim "Oh, my God" with such vocal precision and power. Meanwhile, the rest of the film sounds decent. Again, this fact is more likely a result of the original effort put into recording and mixing, than any damage done over time. Sound effects have that '80s B-movie feel to them – meaning punches don’t exactly pack a punch, and anything else, like the clang of swords, or the roar of a motorcycle engine sounds fabricated at best. Perhaps it is a testament to the quality of the Master Audio mix on this Blu-ray that these things are so readily identified in the first place.
While it would no doubt have been possible to craft some sort of 5.1 audio track, the effect would have been detrimental to everything that makes 'Miami Connection' special in the first place. While it's understandable that the folks at Drafthouse Films and Image would want to put some extra effort in bringing the image back to life, the fact that they left well-enough alone in regards to the audio shows how well they know their audience. This isn't the kind of movie watching experience intended to test the limits of a home theater, it's an altogether different kind of animal.
Admittedly, 'Miami Connection' isn't going to be for everyone; there'll certainly be plenty who aren't going to like it for whatever reason, and that's okay. But if you're looking to spend 83 minutes rocking out to the anthemic songs of Dragon Sound, and watching as a bunch of Tae Kwon Do students punch and kick their way through wave after wave of drug-dealing ninja and biker scum, then look no further. Cheesy and seemingly misguided as it is, the movie is still a metric ton of fun that has been given an unprecedented second chance at finding an audience. With luck that audience will grow, as it makes its way into homes via Blu-ray, DVD and, yes, even special edition VHS. The Blu-ray comes packed with a better-than-expected transfer and a whole host of special features that are nearly as entertaining as the film itself. This one is recommended for lovers of '80s action cinema, or anyone looking to discover what all the hype is about.