At the heart of “Miami Connection” is a jaw-droppingly earnest and occasionally inept attempt to spread the message of Y.K. Kim, a Taekwondo master, motivational speaker, author and here actor, and co-writer/director. According to his website, Kim arrived in the U.S. in 1976, homeless and without a firm grasp on the language. Eleven years later “Miami Connection” would light up screens in Orlando, before falling into obscurity only to be discovered by a programmer of the Alamo Drafthouse and subsequently released by Drafthouse Films, the distribution arm of the hallowed theatrical chain.
The restored result is not the trainwreck you might be expecting – hell, occasionally it’s a little dull – but it is difficult to look away, especially when Kim (as his onscreen counterpart Mark, an orphaned college student who is also a black belt in Taekwondo) delivers any line, big or small. From the line readings to the fight scenes to basic showcases of emotion, Kim’s intensity is what makes “Miami Connection” memorable, especially as the threadbare plot pauses for martial arts exhibitions on the campus of the University of Florida. It’s funny stuff, no doubt, but also a bit touching in how little cynicism is involved. Kim set out to make a film that featured bloody ninja action but condemned violence (wait for the third reel coda) – and he somewhat succeeded.
Kim rooms with pals – John (Vincent Hirsch), Jack (Joseph Diamand), Jim (Maurice Smith) and Tom (Angelo Janotti) — and bandmates in Dragon Sound, who all get their time in the spotlight, in particular Jack, who develops into a legitimate supporting character due to his relationship with Jane (Kathy Collier), whose brother Jeff (William Eagle) is in cahoots with the drug ninjas and won’t have his sister dating a no-name musician. When a disgruntled band enlists Jeff's gang to run Dragon Sound out of town, the toughs don't count on the Taekwondo skills of Mark and his crew. If the "Beat It" video was made on a shoe-string budget and filled with beer-bellied bikers or emaciated rednecks swinging widly, it still wouldn't come close to approximating the brawls seen here. The music of Dragon Sound also deserves mention – you will be humming these tracks on your way out, and you will not soon forget the actors flailing around pretending to be musicians while Janotti, the composer, rocks his permed mullet into the night.
It’s a struggle to temper expectations here, because although we saw and enjoyed this film, the hype is where the rubber doesn’t meet the road. It’s funny, cheesy and poorly done in parts but this is bargain bin stuff, not exactly a challenger for a newly found classic of the genre. Zack Carlson, who initially brought the film to light, makes a case for its genuine good-ness in this Wired piece, and while that’s a stretch for us, the film does beg to be seen with an audience, trumping the home theater experience. As the fanbase for “Miami Connection” grows, we may have a better idea of the film’s staying power but for now, it’s a cult that Drafthouse Films hopes to foster and watch grow. Seeing as how Kim plans to make a film a year for the next five years, that fanbase may well explode. [B]