Friday, August 5, 2016

Friendship, Loyalty, and Murdering Ninjas: MIAMI CONNECTION

I love an ambitious movie.  Passion can turn a simple premise into something special.  Add in some dogged determination and the result can be groundbreaking.  Combine ambition, passion, determination, and a complete lack of experience and/or talent and the result can be magic.    Martial artist and non-actor Y.K. Kim brings us that magic in the form of 1987’s MIAMI CONNECTION.

The Capsule:
Tae Kwon Do themed rock band Dragon Sound just wants to play their songs about friendship and fighting ninjas to the appreciative citizens of Central Florida.  Unfortunately for them, hotheaded local drug dealer Jeff is upset that his sister, Jane, is hanging out with the band and dating the guitarist, John (“J” names are popular in Central Florida).  Jeff tries to intimidate the boys into leaving town, but band leader and Tae Kwon Do blackbelt Mark isn’t about to be pushed around by a bunch of dirtbag drug slingers.  Jeff’s mulleted minions repeatedly get their asses kicked by the band, so he calls on his Miami drug connection, Yashito, to sic an army of biker ninjas on them.  Can Mark, John, and the other less important members of Dragon Sound survive the climactic musician vs ninja throwdown?

MIAMI CONNECTION is an embarrassment of riches.  It could also be called an embarrassment of embarrassments, but I prefer the former.  The movie is filled to the brim with, sometimes contradictory, themes of brotherhood, positivity, and brutal ninja violence.  It is also dripping with heart and enthusiasm.  This is good, because it offsets the total lack of direction, plot, character development, or basic logic.  

The film begins with an amazing fight between a Miami drug gang and a bunch of roly poly ninjas (never walk when you can summersault).  It’s very involved and elaborate for an independent movie.  There are dozens of people firing machine guns, shooting arrows, and swinging swords.  One guy makes a three story jump and hits the ground running.  He wasn’t even a ninja.  Another guy inventively uses two metal slabs to protect his forearms from sword blows.  They are no match for ninjas, though, and soon the white suited boss ninja and his crew wipe them all out and scamper away with the drugs and the money.  

The head ninja, incidentally, is kind of a dick to work for.  They should be celebrating their success, but the boss ninja just berates his underlings, shouting “where is my money!”  There is a long, awkward silence after one of his toadies sits the briefcase of money in front of him, leading one timid but helpful ninja to point at the case, as if to say “There’s your money boss, right there, in front of you.”  At least he reacts better than later on when he laughs at, then cuts the head off, a guy who delivers bad news.

So what’s more awesome than ninjas?  A Tae Kwon Do themed pop band called Dragon Sound!  They are introduced rocking out in a night club, dressed in matching gi, playing a song that almost exactly describes the opening ninja fight.  About 80% of their songs involve fighting the ninja, even though they are all just a bunch of University of Central Florida students that have never even seen ninjas until end of the movie.  They are just tapping into the traditional Tae Kwon Do vs. Ninja rivalry.  You know, like Army vs. Navy football.   

Dragon Sound is one of those bands that only exist in ‘80’s movies.  The singer looks like John Oats.  Mark, the band leader and sensei, holds his guitar like a 6 year-old pretending to be on MTV.  Everyone smiles constantly.   The song lyrics sound like they came from the notebook of a middle schooler.   And of course, they are the toast of Orlando (not Miami).  People just couldn’t get enough of Tae Kwon Do bands back then.  The crowd even chants “Tae Kwon, Tae Kwon Do!” back to the band during their “Friends Through Eternity” anthem.  

Everyone loves them, except the perpetually angry beardo whose unnamed band was fired to make way for Dragon Sound.  He’s the one who goes to local drug kingpin Jeff to have the Dragon Sound run out of town.  There is some talk about the drug trade and Jeff’s sister, but the real conflict in the movie boils down to band envy.  Dragon Sound isn’t concerned with cleaning up the streets, they just want to keep their sweet gig.

The movie has a weird sense of verisimilitude, since there are no real actors.  IMDB lists 137 cast members.  Only two of them have pictures.  The most famous person in the cast is Bubba Baker, a large, hairy biker known for playing large, hairy bikers.  In MIAMI CONNECTION he pushes a nail into his nose to impress a chick at a bar.  Everyone else is either a stunt person or just a dude from Orlando.  Long sections of the movie are intensely unremarkable.  There is a scene in the UCF Computer Science lab where the (real) professor is boasting about coming in 4th place in the International Programming Competition.  He is so proud, and it has nothing to do with the movie ever again.  It pivots wildly between being an awkward Floridian documentary, an equally awkward melodrama about the bonds of friendship, and a preposterously over the top action movie.

Not even the people playing main characters are professionals, or amateurs, for that matter.  They are martial artists pretending to be actors or musicians pretending to be martial artists pretending to be actors.  Y.K. Kim, who plays Mark, was a Tae Kwon Do teacher and inspirational speaker.  He is highly successful at giving earnest speeches and beating up dirtbags, less so when trying to do anything else.  Vincent Hirsch, who plays John (and nothing else, ever), manages some decent fight scenes and nails being a doofy Florida college student.  Maurice Smith, who plays Jim, can neither fight nor play an instrument, but he can ridiculously overact.  He has two tearful scenes talking about trying to find the father that abandoned him (Mark: “You have a father?  I thought we were all orphans.”).  Interestingly, Jim is shirtless with unbuttoned pants in both scenes.  I guess it’s method acting.  The John Oats guy’s only contribution is being beaten up a lot (once by girls on the beach) and getting captured.  There is another guy in the band who, um, is often present.  

The villains are unquestionably the best part of the movie.  I’m not talking about the main villains like Yashito  (Si Y Jo) and Jeff (William Ergle) and Angry Fired Band Dude (some guy).  I’m talking about the dozens of nameless dirtbag gang members.  Because there is no dirtbag like a 1980’s era Central Florida dirtbag.  I challenge you to find a more exotic and slovenly band of miscreants on screen.  It’s like a real version of the STAR WARS cantina scene.  My favorite is the fat guy in the dirty Ocean Pacific shirt.  He doesn’t so much as fight as hang out being smarmy and improvising nonsensical lines.  When Jeff’s sister is looking for him at the gang’s gym headquarters, OP Dude replies “I ain’t seen nobody since 1962.” Um, okay.  On her way out, he chuckles “salami”, leaving it to her to build the rest of the sexual innuendo.   Also, I’m fairly sure Kid Rock is in there somewhere.  When they are trying to intimidate Dragon Sound into leaving town, one dirtbag does the classic move of pouring beer on the heroes’ heads, but only after pouring it on his own head first.  It makes it seem more like a gesture of drunken comradery than a threat.  John even leans in when it’s his turn to be doused.  

And did I mention that there are biker ninja?  Not just ninjas on bikes (though they do that, too), but equal parts biker and ninja.  They look pretty fly in their black suits, but out of uniform, they transform into straight up, bearded, beer gutted bikers.  There is a little bit of cross over.  One of the bikers wears a tee shirt with a ninja on it.  Represent.

Ironically, the boss ninja, Yashito , is just the opposite.  When in regular biker gear (including a kicky scarf), he’s a steely eyed Asian guy.  When he dons his ninja suit for the final fight, he turns into a white guy with a mustache.  I’m betting the filmmakers hoped the mask would hide that, but who knows?  The way of the ninja is mysterious.

My one disappointment with the movie is Mark’s reaction to the impending climax.  After Dragon Sound has beaten up or killed dozens of dirtbags, including Jeff, who it turns out is somehow Yashito’s brother, the ninja master finally rolls out his boys.  Mark and John are driving Jim to the airport to meet his long lost father when they turn the corner to find a platoon of ninjas on motorcycles blocking their path.  Now, you would think this is the moment Mark’s entire life has been leading up to.  He will finally get to fight against the ninja, just like in Dragon Sound song “Against the Ninja”.  He should be ecstatic.  Instead, he just mutters, “Oh, ninjas”, in the same tone one would say “oh, construction”.  It’s merely a traffic delay.  

This does lead into a blood drenched orgy of ninja mayhem, so I really can’t complain.  It should be noted that for someone espousing tolerance, peace, and understanding, Mark kills a lot of people.  I mean a lot.  Between Mark and John, there is a boatload of dead ninja.  Granted, this battle rage is only unleashed after a great tragedy (“Jim, Jim, Jiiiiiiiim!”), but at the end of the fight, Mark and John are running around in slow motion, covered in blood, hunting for any stray ninja that might have gotten away.  They look like they are from a horror movie.  Luckily, those ninja must be the kind that disappear in a puff of smoke after they are killed, because there is no messy cleanup or police questions or anything.

While there were no professional actors in the movie, there was a real director.  Woo-sang Park, who also played the ass kicking, Mickey Mouse apron wearing restaurant owner Uncle Song, has directed over twenty action movies, including L.A. STREETFIGHTERS and, appropriately, KILL THE NINJA.  He also did CHINATOWN 2, which, as it turns out, is not the sequel to the Roman Polanski classic.  I don’t want any noir fans out there to be misled by the title.  Though the movie was extremely well received in Orlando, it bombed pretty much everywhere else.  Y.K. Kim was particularly bummed out by the failure, especially since he basically financed the whole thing.  On the bright side, the film was rediscovered 25 years later by the cult movie gurus at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and is enjoying a well-deserved renaissance.  It’s just like Dragon Sound says, “Friends through eternity, loyalty, honesty, we’ll stay together through thick and thin.”  Yes we will, MIAMI CONNECTION, yes we will.

C Chaka

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