Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #1 Miami Connection
Welcome to the very first installment in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0—Payola with Honor, a brand spanking new column where I give patrons who make a one-time pledge of one hundred dollars an opportunity to choose a movie I must watch, and then write about. In this case, reader and patron Zack Smith, writer of the comic The Stars Below chose a movie that had fortuitously been on my radar for a while and that I had been looking for an excuse to cover.
The request in question is a wonderfully oblivious, gleefully insane 1987 Tae Kwan Do synth-pop anti-drug, ragingly homoerotic action musical melodrama called Miami Connection that ventures so far beyond self-parody and deviates so greatly from our expectations for professional film that it becomes a form of outsider art.
Miami Connection doesn’t just feel like the work of someone who has never made a movie before; it feels like the work of someone who has never seen a film before, and whose familiarity with human behavior, and, indeed, human beings, is similarly limited in bizarrely fascinating ways. It’s not just that Miami Connection doesn’t follow the rules: it doesn’t seem to know that rules exist. There’s something weirdly liberating about that lack of knowledge. If Miami Connection feels like the work of rank amateurs making it up as they go along that’s because that’s exactly what it is.
Miami Connection doesn’t seem to understand why a kid-friendly, pro-friendship, anti-drug, boy version of the 1980s cartoon Jem & The Holograms with fist-pumping anthems like “Friends Forever” (whose sadistically catchy chorus insists, “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!”) can’t also be a hard-R martial arts revenge melodrama filled with killings that are Mortal Kombat like in their brutality, and also a weirdly saccharine family drama about a young man who achieves his life's dream of meeting the dad who abandoned him and nearly dies in the process.
It’s a film of great conviction and a surreal dearth of self-consciousness. Producer and star Y.M Kim, who spent much of his own fortune on the film, clearly intended this not only as a straight-faced martial arts melodrama/musical but as a film that would spread the gospel and philosophy of Tae Kwan-Do and that would have an important social message beyond being against what one character calls “dumb cocaine” with a bratty juvenile annoyance more appropriate for complaining about possibly contracting cooties.
No one here seems familiar with the concept of irony, let alone that they’re in a crazed cult camp artifact future generations would gaze upon with open-mouthed disbelief as the most 1980s film in existence, and also a film unlikely any other movie from its era, or any other.
Nothing ruins a camp classic like an excess of smirking self-awareness but Miami Connection is gloriously devoid of self-consciousness. This is no Snakes on a Plane or Sharknado. This is closer to the outsider cinema of Tommy Wiseau, James Nguyen and Neal Breen, self-styled auteurs who did not let a complete lack of talent, experience and know-how keep them from pursuing their creative vision down whatever crazy path it led them.
And what is it that makes Miami Connection so singularly kookety-coo? Well, a good indication of the film’s surreally combustible, unlikely combination of elements can be found in an opening synth-pop anthem about “Bikers by day, ninjas by night!/Swift and fit, not afraid to fight, Steal all your cocaine, along with your life/Strike with no mercy into the night!”
Ah, but these dastardly, high-kicking, drugs stealing and selling, motorcycle-riding degenerates are not our heroes. Far from it. They’re the bad guys. Our good guys are somehow an even more preposterous and impossible proposition: a multiracial, frequently shirtless group of bandmates/Tae Kwan Do black belts/students/college students/crazed vigilantes who train together, study martial arts together, study non-martial arts together and form a loving surrogate family overseen by Taekwondo instructor Mark (Y.K Kim).
They’re a United Colors of Benetton assemblage of different races living in perfect harmony metaphorically and literally, as they’re all part of a Taekwando-based synth pop group called Dragon Sound that sings about such relatable subjects as friendship (“Friends”), their battle with evil martial artists (“Against the Ninja” and “Escape from Miami”).
There’s Tom, Dragon Sound’s singer and lead guitarist, who is played by Angelo Jannotti, a mustachioed mulleted, beefcake whose vibe is “a gayer Freddy Mercury.” On keyboards, we have the flamboyant, effeminate Jim (Maurice White), whose mother, we learn, was Korean, but whose father was a “Black American” service man who abandoned his family but, that we learn with a hilariously overwrought level of fanfare, is not only still alive but interested in reconnecting with his adult son.
This news shocks Mark, who blurts out, “You had a father! I thought we are all orphans!” despite seeming a good fifteen years older than his fellow orphans/Dragon Sound bandmates. How overjoyed are these orphans that their soul brother is about to re-meet his daddy? They’re so delighted that they hoist him on their shoulders in slow motion, like he’d just led them to the Super Bowl.
Jim and his fateful date with destiny embodies, to a comic and surreal degree, the action movie cliche of a man doomed by being on the cusp of realizing his fondest dream. The more seemingly blessed a supporting character is in an action movie like this is, the more he’s actually cursed. Indeed, Jim was originally so lucky that he did not survive his good fortune and was killed by ninjas before he could meet up with dear old dad, who, in keeping with the film’s absurdity, appears to be roughly the same age as the actor playing his son, but with some very fake-looking grey highlights designed to age him. Alas, people found the original ending a bummer so Jim somehow ends up surviving a massacre to meet his dad for a big old happy ending.
On bass guitar we’ve got John (Vincent Hirsch), the boyfriend of sometimes vocalist Jane (Kathie Collie). In a glorious bit of exposition, we learn a little something about Jane and her family when John stumblingly asks, “So, Jane, I’ve been wondering about your family. Do you have any family or anything? I haven’t met anybody yet or?” and she replies, “Well I have a brother as a matter of fact. If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be going to this nice school and staying in this nice dorm I’m staying in. Except for one thing. I don’t really like him.”
Jane demurs that she doesn’t know exactly she doesn’t like her brother Jeff (William Ergle) but I think it might have something to do with him being a sociopathic, cocaine-dealing gang leader with clear-cut incestuous feelings towards her who, upon meeting his sister’s new boyfriend, angrily inquires, “Where’d you find this son of a bitch?” and then punches John in the face. Seldom has the phrase “not cool bro” seemed more appropriate. Finally, and most Jewishly, there’s the token Jew, Jack (Joseph Diamond, who wrote the screenplay), the Israeli drummer
Dragon Sound is the new house band at what is billed as the “hottest club in central Florida” but they, and the rest of society, pay a steep price for this choice gig. The rage-filled band they replaced is willing to do anything, up to and including murder, to get their modestly compensated gig performing for coked-up drunks back. How many people must die in this epic battle between Dragon Sound and various bad guys including Jeff, the evil bike-riding ninjas, various coke dealers and a non-ninja motorcycle gang filled with grizzled-looking women topless for no damn reason whatsoever?
A whole lot of people die violent deaths in Miami Connection. It boasts a body count closer to a small war than a typical musical but at no time are law enforcement called in to deal with the piles of corpses that result from the most violent battle of the bands in human history. Apparently the powers that be are fine with letting a synth pop outfit compromised of effeminate college students handle law and order for the greater central Florida area.
Miami Connection devotes an entire ridiculous scene to Dragon Sound at the beach sexually harassing bikini-clad sunbathers with charming commentary like, “They don’t make buns like that down at the bakery!” but the men of Dragon Sound do not seem remotely interested in women as anything other than platonic friends and possible bandmates.
The bond between Mark and Jim in particular seems closer to that of men who cannot speak their love for each other out loud than housemates and fellow Taekwando buffs.
It’s not just Kim who cannot act and has a fascinatingly primitive presence onscreen. Nobody here seems like they’ve ever been in front of a camera before. The result feels like a fever dream of Reagan-era excess, Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire reimagined as a vehicle for a martial arts entrepreneur out to conquer multiple mediums—music and film—he could not misunderstand more intensely or entertainingly.
In one of the film’s many crazed contradictions, Miami Connection is a movie for small children filled with ham-fisted anti-drug messages, laughably broad characters and a poignantly child-like innocence that the filmmakers ensured no child should ever be allowed to see, filled as it is with graphic violence and nudity that is as unappealing as it is unnecessary.
In a lot of martial arts movies, it seems like nobody gets hurt, let alone dies. In Miami Connection, the heroes take time out from rocking out, hitting the books and practicing their forms to graphically kill their nemeses in ways that are sometimes shocking in their brutality and gore.
There’s a profound disconnect between the incongruous wholesomeness of the film’s worldview and the bloodshed at its core. The members of Dragon Sound act like children. They talk like children. They think like children. They have the black and white worldview of children. But when things get grim, and ninjas threaten to extinguish the light that is their dear, sweet, brother Jim, then they have no choice but to kill like adults.
These are generally some milk-drinking, Archies/Monkees milquetoast motherfuckers but when they think Jim, poor, daddy-craving Jim, has been brutally murdered they turn into blood-crazed animals who think nothing of beating any less vestige of life out of their enemies with this fists of fury, their eyes wild with vengeance, seemingly less man than animal.
That’s part of what makes Miami Connection such a trip: on an action level, the movie delivers. The fighting isn’t just surprisingly bloody and forceful: it’s legitimately badass. Kim might not be anyone’s idea of an actor, let alone a movie star, there’s no denying that he can fight, and that holds true of the martial artists/acting amateurs who fill out the rest of Dragon Sound.
Miami Connection ends with the words “ONLY THROUGH THE ELIMINATION OF VIOLENCE CAN WE ACHIEVE WORLD PEACE” onscreen. That might seem a little grandiose, if not hypocritical, coming at the end of a synth-pop musical action revenge melodrama/bloodbath but in its own oddball way it’s perfect, the ultimate STATEMENT from a movie whose complete disconnect from reality is a wonder to behold.
So thank you, Zack Smith, both for the one hundred dollar pledge and for making me watch this wonderful aberration. I’d happily watch it again rather than sit through most of the Oscar nominees for Best Picture. It’s utterly transcendent garbage. I just hope subsequent entries in this column give me even a fraction of the joy I experienced from this glorious anomaly.
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