The Glorious, Good-Natured Mess of Miami Connection

80s martial arts indie Miami Connection isn't good. But it is great.

Miami Connection
Photo: Manson International/Drafthouse Films

This article contains Miami Connection spoilers

Friends through eternity. Loyalty. Honesty. These are the core tenants of Dragon Sound, a rock and roll band made up of black belts in Tae Kwon Do who also happen to all be orphans. Ridiculous? Yes. But it’s that sort of excessive cheese that makes Miami Connection such a wonderful movie, and not in an ironic way. 

If you know anything about Miami Connection, you probably learned about it from a lover of “so bad, it’s good” movies. Filmed in 1987, Miami Connection was created by Tae Kwon Do Grandmaster Y.K. Kim as a way to raise attention to the martial art he loved. A beloved member of the community of 1980s Orlando, Kim had no problem earning money from investors or getting the mayor to issue permits for the movie to film on city streets. Even easier for Kim was finding actors, pulling from the thousands of students in his dojos to play the movie’s heroes and villains. 

Following the model of action movies and rock music that dominated the pop culture of the 80s, Kim and director Richard Park came up with a story about Dragon Sound running battling motorcycle-riding ninjas who transport cocaine from Miami to Orlando. Despite the fact that he, like his students, was not an actor and that he, unlike his students, struggled with English, Kim embraced a movie stuffed with action, rock music set pieces, schmaltzy drama, and philosophizing about world peace. 

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But it’s that very excess that makes Miami Connection such a special film. For every “mistake” the movie makes, every absurd decision that breaks from expectation, Miami Connection grows that much more delightful and unique. 

Against the Ninja

On the surface, Miami Connection follows the structure of most 80s action movies. It features a group of virtuous heroes with sympathetic backstories who run afoul of motorcycle-riding ninjas/cocaine traffickers. There’s also a Romeo and Juliet type story involving the hero John (Vincent Hirsch) and his girlfriend Joan (Kathie Collier), sister to the disapproving gang leader Jeff (William Ergle). John and Joan don’t have much chemistry, nor does the movie devote much time to the courtship outside of John making faces at Joan in her computer class. However, this part of the plot does provide another example of the movie lapping story over story to a point of excess.

But it all sounds simple enough, right? Miami Connection’s plot wouldn’t be too far off from an early Schwarzenegger flick or a Cannon cheapie with Chuck Norris. But Kim and Park take a maximalist approach, filling the movie with basically every trope they found in cineplexes. Dragon Sound finds themselves in trouble with the ninjas, not because they want to stop the influx of drugs into their community, or even because they worry about gang violence. Rather, it’s a beef with a disgruntled rock band. 

Early in the film, a club owner (William Jones) introduces viewers to Dragon Sound as “a new dimension in rock and roll.” But in a later scene, another band arrives to confront the owner for replacing them with Dragon Sound, dismissing our heroes as people who “make music for kids.” That band hires some thugs from Jeff’s gang to rough them up, but as Dragon Sound consists entirely of black belts in Tae Kwon Do, things don’t go well for the thugs. Angered by the defeat of his men and of John’s relationship with his sister, Jeff sends the entire gang to ambush Dragon Sound, but our heroes prevail again. Only then does Jeff enlist the help of his cocaine supplier, a clan of ninjas led by the murderous Yoshito (Siyung Jo). 

There are also subplots about keyboardist Jim (Maurice Smith) searching for his missing father, Dragon Sound planning a world tour to embrace their immigrant roots, and miscellaneous scenes of guitarist Mark (Kim) testing Tae Kwon Do skills of his bandmates and vocalist/guitarist Tom (Angelo Janotti) playfully harassing women at a beach (okay, that part is way less charming). The movie even stops to watch a biker gang do biker gang things for three minutes, all set to the Dragon Sound track “Tough Guys.”

Messin’ With the Tough Guys

To be sure, it’s absolutely fair to knock Miami Connection for its unusual approach to plotting and character development. But fairness also demands that we keep in mind the movie’s raison d’être. Kim created the movie solely to show off Tae Kwon Do. With few exceptions – Janotti, Collier, and Park, most notably – the cast and crew consists of Kim’s students, even enlisting student Joseph Diamond (who also plays Dragon Sound member Jack) to write the movie’s screenplay. 

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All of this serves as a structure for Kim to showcase the talents of his students, which largely take the form of massive fight sequences, pitting Dragon Sound against Jeff’s gang and the ninjas, but even these don’t meet the expectations of 80s action movies. As a teacher first, Kim choreographs the scenes to emphasize technique and safety over spectacle. Combatants wait a beat before attacking each other, giving their nemeses space to properly perform each move, without fear of hurting one another. Strangely, Miami Connection feels like classic beat ‘em up video games of the 90s, making for a better Double Dragon adaptation than the actual Double Dragon movie. 

That said, the fight scenes are anything but dull. The battles in Miami Connection have a strange rhythm, unlike any other action movie. At the risk of hyperbole, they almost have a quality similar to Bruce Lee films, for which directors invented slow motion to capture the complexity of his movements. This isn’t to say that the fighters in Miami Connection are on Lee’s level – after all, only the main characters are black belts, and the rest are students – but the emphasis on technique allows us to appreciate the actual points in a Tae Kwon Do kick.

While Kim emphasizes the fundamentals of his art, Park brings in the excessive vernacular of action movies. For every scene in which Dragon Sound don their dobok and peacefully practice Tae Kwon Do on the quad of Central Florida University, there’s another in which Yoshito beheads a minion who failed him or a thug looks in horror at his severed arm. In fact, the movie climaxes with Mark and John giving into their darker impulses after the ninjas mortally wound Jim. 

Cinematographer Maximo Munzi shoots Kim and Hirsch as if they were devolving into beasts, their muscles flared and teeth bared as they destroy the ninja once and for all. Throughout the battle, Munzi (also the movie’s editor) cuts to Kim waving a sword in a verdant swamp, the sweat on his face and haze from the heat combining to make him a force of nature. 

And yet, after this orgy of excessive violence, the movie returns to its core principles. A brief final scene assures us that our heroes survived and that hope is restored. As the rocker “Tae Kwon Do Family” (“In our lives, we fight for justice / We are Tae Kwon Do family”) enters the soundtrack, we’re left with a closing title card: “Only through the elimination of violence can we achieve world peace.”

Friends for Eternity

Are these mixed messages ridiculous? Absolutely. Are they indicators that everyone involved with the film was inept? At moviemaking, definitely. But that’s what makes Miami Connection amazing. 

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Like the best “so bad it’s good” movies – The Room, Troll 2, Plan Nine From Outer SpaceMiami Connection is a passion project by people who love what they do. Unlike Tommy Wiseau or Troll 2 director Claudio Fragasso, Kim and his collaborators have no pretensions about making a great movie. First and foremost, they want people to share in their joy, to see the happiness that Tae Kwon Do brings. 

Because their heart is more in evangelizing Tae Kwon Do than in being awesome, Kim and his collaborators are fine with including scenes that others would leave out. Perhaps the best example involves a moment related to the star crossed lovers plot involving John and Joan. 

When Jeff and his cronies find his sister walking across campus with John, Joan tries to make the best of it. “Where did you find this son of a bitch?” Jeff suddenly asks when John introduces himself. “He’s a friend of mine from school,” answers Joan. But no sooner do the words leave her mouth does Jeff snap, “A FRIEND!?!” After Jeff cold cocks John, Mark and the others arrive to help their friend. When John’s friends/bandmates/fellow orphans, everyone seems ready to fight. But instead, even better, Mark and Jeff verbally spar with one another, resulting in some outstanding line readings, including the former sputtering “We are not afraid of you at all goodbye” as a single word. 

It’s moments like these that make Miami Connection a success. Kim and his students have a can-do attitude that rivals that of the “let’s put on a show” movies starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney (or, perhaps more accurately, the Jackass crew). Furthermore, their skewed perspective on movie making results in scenes that you will find nowhere else, as when Mark starts hand-feeding grapes to his friends for no particular reason, or when a training session pauses to pull a close up on Jack with Mark’s fist in his mouth. 

Does Miami Connection work like other movies, even the 80s action films it’s trying so hard to emulate? Absolutely not. But the film’s unusual approach results in something utterly unique, a movie that delights and baffles viewers with its strange choices, but ultimately wins them over with its indefatigable optimism. And yes, it does make Tae Kwon Do look pretty cool. 

This article is presented as a part of Den of Geek’s ‘There Are No Guilty Pleasures’ project.

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