2. The Miami Connection – so bad it’s good!
by Martin Goolsarran
For as long as I can remember, The Prince Charles Cinema has always presented itself to be something of a maverick amongst its London picture house peers. With its dissenting code of ethics, myriad of eclectic theme nights, and competitively affordable prices, The Charles, has for many years managed to sustain itself, whilst successfully promoting its own ethos of giving audiences exactly what they want from alternative film experiences.
Of its many themes The Charles hosts a monthly film night titled: “The Good/Bad Film Club” which showcase some of the best – worst films ever made – this is where the likes of god awful films like Masters of the Universe, The Garbage Pail Kids, and Killer Clowns from Outer Space have managed to find their niche in life. Here the tables of cinema protocol are completely flipped as The Good/Bad Club wholly endorses you to show your appreciation of bad taste cinema in any way you see fit; the more you boo, heckle, chide, cackle and sneer , the better it goes down. Get the picture?
Quite recently I saw a trailer for a film called Miami Connection, which was so bizarrely sublime that I really didn’t know what to make of it. As high-kicking rock stars took on gangs of biker ninjas I couldn’t make out if it was for real or some kind of mock up? After some research my suspicions were confirmed, this was no mock up – this was the real deal. Being so taken in by this it became a personal mission for me to see this cinematic abomination in full. With a little nudging and persuasion, I managed to rally a faithful following of likeminded friends and work colleagues in joining me to sit through the best of the worst that The Good/Bad Club had to offer.
In the mid 80’s a renowned Korean Taekwondo expert named Grandmaster Y.K Kim was spotted giving a demonstration on a chat show by an American film producer. Being so overwhelmed by the exposure, Grandmaster Kim decided to go into the film business and plough his entire fortune into producing a martial arts film to showcase his talents… that film was Miami Connection and to say that its cinema release was nothing short of a disaster is an understatement. The film’s production ended with its creator filing for bankruptcy, but explaining the rest of the story is a bit of a moot point. Miami Connection became an otherwise straight-to-VHS-job that had doomed itself to the lowest depths of video trash obscurity. However, when the original film print was recently found and purchased at a car boot sale for $5, a small screening was held, which caused a bit of a stir. Now a revived found footage piece, after 25 years it seems that Miami Connection has found its calling with The Good/Bad Club. This screening was pure fan appreciation of all things kitsch and sublime; so for me and my clique and the rest of the crowd, we duly turned out for a night of 80’s tat and Kung Fu action, and expected to leave with nothing less than our fill.
With little in way of a sensible plot, let me break it down in a nutshell: Orlando, Florida, 1987. A local rock band (the excellently named Dragon Sound) that also double up as Black Belts in Taekwondo, run into a turf war with a gang of drug dealing bikers that seek to push them out of their slot as the house band at a local nightclub. While Dragon Sound are happily spreading messages of peace and harmony through their music, and being brotherly in helping keyboard player Jim to find his long-lost father, the bikers’ attempts of intimidation find them repeatedly on the tail-end of some serious arse –kickings. The rivalry comes to a head when the bikers draft in some auxiliary muscle from an affiliate gang of brethren biker ninjas to help win back their drug patch and put the good guy rockers ‘n’ rollers out of commission, once and for all.
On the night itself, my group and I assembled on the steps of The Charles and was ready let rip. To my joy and surprise the concurring hordes flocking to the downstairs theatre suggested a decent turnout of numbers – I was not wrong there. Settled in with beer and popcorn the seven of us soaked up the buzz and sat back and waited to be entertained, or not as my be the case.
Next up was a sneeringly entertaining talk from The Good/Bad Film Club compare about the entailment of the screening, which for the most part, involved us being told to abandon any great expectations of a high quality film experience. No surprise there, then. Lights dim and curtains close and reopen. The laughter and cackling had barely died down before it quickly ramped up again, as we were treated to a run of trailers of 80’s Ninja classics! Even for a self-confessed martial arts nerd like me it was a bit like being transported back to my local video shop/newsagents in 1987. As those shady men in black, flipped hundreds of feet in the air and burrowed through the ground like mechanical ploughs. Titles like Sukura Killers, Ninja Terminator and Ninja III the Domination had me and everybody in the house in fits. The tone of the evening had been set; we now all knew what we were in for.
From the get-go when a bunch of masked ninjas kick-off by annexing a big money drug deal, the corn(y) syrup flowed in rivers of red as dismembered limbs flew high and low in every direction. Within the realms of bad taste the bar had been set pretty high as there was plenty more of this to come. There was not a quiet moment in the house as almost 80% of the (clearly unintentionally funny) dialogue, had most of us in cackling our way through our popcorn. The many editing goofs and continuity gaffs were far from being out of place, as they only functioned to fan the flames of the diabolical entertainment.
It can be interpreted anyway you like, but our hero outfit, Dragon Sound, certainly got a rousing response from the crowd. For all their faults of throwing around Taekwondo shapes on stage in Kung Fu pyjamas and a whole lot more, this odd squad of 80’s big hair rock ‘n’ rollers were quite easy to warm to. As they sought to make the world a better place through banging out feel-good pop/rock tunes (personal tastes not withstanding), and stood up against the axis of evil in Orlando’s drug scum. I found myself rooting for them for all the right reasons, as overall they are quite a likable bunch.
When the action kicked in, the fights, which make up around 50% of the film, actually managed to silence us for a while. After all, Miami Connection starred and was scripted by Taekwondo Grandmaster Y.K Kim who surely knows a thing or two about staging a good punch- up? In showcasing some hilarious slow motioned training katas, Grandmaster Kim clearly intended to cash in on his 15 minutes of fame as the martial arts show pony of the pack.
From the point of view of our endearing protagonists, the fight sequences aren’t to shabby at all and put them in a rather good light. Without any posturing, Dragon Sound dish out some competent but, gritty street brawling Taekwondo - against the scores of baseball bat wielding and chain swinging punks, who otherwise couldn’t scrap for toffee.
As the night went on, the cheers and rapture gave out the sense that the righteous street justice Dragon Sound had dealt out some to the drug dealing herberts had almost won the crowd over. The hysterical, but heart-warming subplot of keyboard player, Jim’s quest to find his long- lost father also had everyone surprisingly rooting for him to succeed with a happy outcome.
When the night wound down it was obvious from the banter and sniggering that Miami Connection had been a big hit with my group as much as the house crowd. The Good/Bad Club certainly knowshow to work a crowd and get the best out of the worst of films out there.
Bankruptcy issues aside, for all of Grandmaster Y.K Kim’s dreams and aspirations for Miami Connection after 25 years it looks as if he has earned some degree of recognition for its principle effort.
Miami Connection is currently going through a renascence and will be available by going to: http://drafthousefilms.com/film/miami-connection
1. KUNG FU – Misrepresented
(Updated 27 January 2013)
What is it that we like and loath about Kung Fu films? As a lifelong fan of martial arts films I’ve always found them to be a colourful, mystical bag of tricks packed full of excitement and dynamic merits to raise the roof; but this is not necessarily the case for everybody. Having brought it up many times, I’ve found that the mere mention of the subject can elicit something of a ‘Marmite’ response amongst people. I can’t help but wonder why that is?
With its many giving attributes and explicable flaws, the martial arts genre has never been short of its critics. To those that hold it sacred there has always been a loyal and solid fan base; a diehard contingent of soldiers that stand impassioned on the subject, speculating over Bruce Lee’s eternal influence and legacy, debating the finer points of extraordinary fighting styles and arguing the toss about who would beat who in a fight and why. Then there is the common ground, found in the modest follower who mostly remembers the nostalgic classics from their youth and who catches the occasional whiff of some new fad or star. And finally, we have the snob! The elitist who casts his eyes down in disdain, sniping at a genre they view to be seeped in inanity; casting off derisory comments like “I liked Kung Fu…. when I was about 10 years old! Grow up!” Though the comparison to other niche film genres is similar, this is somewhat more pronounced, for the zealots and non-partisans alike there seems to be something of a real love/hate relationship at work with the Kung Fu film. I could be wrong, but let me walk you through this and have a closer look at the Yin and Yang of these points.
A negative perception has kept martial arts films in a grey area that for too long has blinded the mainstream audience with a serious lack of insight. But just what is it that’s to blame for this? Maybe the golden era of the 70’s still resonates too many clichés? Did too much unsynchronised dubbing and slapstick Chop Socky cause film connoisseurs and the man on the street to disengage all together? Or perhaps the Kung Fu throne had been unrivalled for too long? Has dormant sentimentality not made it sacrosanct to even consider new challengers? “Bruce Lee was the best; there’ll never be another like him!” They cry! Then there are Hollywood’s dubious dabblings with its big productions set pieces, taking action stars like Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal, and crowning them as Kung Fu avatars. Finally, and more importantly, with its meek underexposure there’s Tinsletown’s failure to harness the superior quality of Kung Fu’s true shining stars.
Although their place in popular cinema culture is now noted, the path to prominence on the big screen was not so clear cut for its major players. Bruce Lee’s determination to break into the western market and bring Kung Fu to the masses eventually paid off by opening many doors for himself and future generations of Asian and ethnic actors and directors to thrive, but not without certain sacrifices. Faced with repeated rejection, overt racism, and near financial ruin, his struggle eventually took him from being an unknown Chinese actor in Hollywood to an overnight Asian superstar. Though only for a brief time, Bruce Lee truly illuminated the big screens. Eventually achieving all that he had set out to do, he brought Kung Fu to the masses on a global scale with his swan-song feature, Enter the Dragon. By the time the world was ready to embrace him, he was swiftly taken from us, leaving a void to be filled and an impact on the film industry so indelible that his legacy and iconic status still lives on today.
Whereas Jackie Chan and Jet Li had the berth to grow and establish themselves as superstars in their native Hong Kong and Asian markets, their journey to mainstream Western success would take them decades to succeed in Bruce’s footsteps. The initial trial and error efforts of Hollywood producers and directors to find their next bankable asset brought us nothing but failure and ineptitude.
Action director Robert Clouse (of Enter the Dragon and Game of Death fame) was quick to go to work on Jackie Chan with the disastrous Battle Creek Brawl; a poor gambit that ended up as a feeble and uninventive charade. Likewise was the farcical, stereotyped Japanese race driver he played in The Cannonball Run and its sequel. Jackie Chan made little progress in Hollywood and soon headed home to his native Hong Kong where things made more sense. It would be here during the 80’s that the king of Kung Fu comedy/action would soar to success by directing and starring in his greatest works, such as Project A, Police Story and Armour of God. It would be another 15 years before Jackie Chan would be gifted another crack at Hollywood, this time nailing it with the Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon franchises, as well as a string of hits that would assure him much wider recognition.
In the meantime, Jet Li remained oblivious to Hollywood for many years. Although his rise into the big time was somewhat quicker than his peers, due to a latent change in attitudes, this was made possible by a more urgent call for stars of a similar calibre to strut their stuff in more accessible fodder. Hollywood were unable translate his speed, skill and timing to commercial features, which resulted in a slow and sketchy start in some rather unworthy efforts. In time, duel billings with rapper DMX and action star Jason Statham would see Jet Li grow into becoming a more accepted household name.
Less can be said of Donnie Yen. Undoubtedly one of Hong Kong action’s finest offsprings of the last 3 decades, his tryouts in the U.S with Blade 2 and Shanghai Knights went virtually unnoticed. It wasn’t until the late noughties that the excellent Hong Kong produced biopic Ip Man would cause such a stir that both international and domestic cinema critics began to take notice. Ip Man had got tongues wagging about Kung Fu films again, generating new interest and attracting Joe Public to delve deeper into the subject; which even caused a renaissance in people taking up the actual fighting art of Wing Chun.
Maybe the timing wasn’t right, but the long term impact may have been quite different if at the time Hollywood had a clearer understanding of martial arts pictures. By focusing on action instead of form, style and technique it had missed some of the vital points of what makes a Kung Fu picture successful. Not to say that with the talent it held in its hands, these titans could have sunk the Titanic by unleashing their real ability on the masses, impacting commercial cinema and it audiences on a far grander scale; instead they caused just a ripple in the tide resulting in only shallow mainstream appeal.
For many, martial arts may have gone unnoticed in modern day cinema, but in fact, it is a diverse and fickle beast that has been raring its head in popular culture for the last fifty years. Kung Fu cinema predates the 1930’s starting with the chapter serials and recurring characterisation of Chinese folk legend Wong Fei-Hung. The 60’s brought us the classic swordplay pictures of the Shaw Brothers Wuxia period pieces. Glimmers of mainstream coverage surfaced in the James Bond classic you only Live Twice; arguably one of the earliest examples of a martial arts backdrop to feature a western protagonist. Who out there is not familiar with the comedy of errors Chop Socky between the hapless Inspector Clouseau and sidekick Kato? Not to mention the sublime screen antics of comic book heroes The Green Hornet and Batman (featuring the rising star of a young Bruce Lee)?
After the discovery of its favourite sons Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, Hong Kong in the 70’s gave birth to its golden age, in proliferating an endless output of domestic and cult classics as part of the Golden Harvest and Seasonal film boom. Bruce Lee’s maverick counterpart, Sonny Chiba, brought street brawling – Karate from the shores of Japan. Likewise, Hollywood began to dip its toes in the mystic arena with the popular TV series Kung Fu and feature length classic Enter the Dragon. The 80’s unleashed the insurmountable acts of the ninja, the high – kicking exploits of Chuck Norris and the commercial endeavours of feel good pictures like The Karate Kid and No Retreat No Surrender. The 90’s brought us kick-action star Jean-Claude Van Damne, gun-toting Akidoist Steven Seagal, Kung Fu femme fatales Cynthia Rothrock and Michelle Yeoh. The new millennium saw the recall of Wuxia in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Hero, House of the Flying Daggers, Quentin Tarantino’s fanatical Kung Fu homage in Kill Bill Vol: 1&2, not forgetting the incredible feats of Thai superstar Tony Jaa in the excellent Ong Bak series.
Nowadays most Hollywood action pictures employ fight sequences with some degree of martial arts choreography involved, which for the most part is expertly supplied by actors and stuntmen right off of the backlots of the vintage Hong Kong production studios. You only have to look at franchises like The Matrix, Charlie’s Angels, Blade, The Transporter, The Bourne series; the list is endless and evident of that particular martial arts stamp.
The well may have dried up for a few years, but as we speak a rebirth looks to be taking place to replenish the drought. A new kid on the block has emerged in Iko Uwais, star of the hugely successful surprise hit of last year - The Raid. We also had RZA’s directorial debut The Man with the Iron Fists and future release Nicholas Winding-Refn’s Only God Forgives (both heavily centred on martial arts themes) not lest forgetting the steady excess of Hong Kong productions.
However, even with the amount of exposure that the Kung Fu picture has received, my feeling is that the negative stigma may never change for the mainstream masses. But still, not to let that detract from the fact that for the last 50 year we have been gifted with one of cinema’s most beautiful and animated contributions. Now with the support of the kick-arse devotees and the celebrity circuit of Hollywood admirers the future of the Kung Fu film looks to be bright and gaining momentum again.
Whether you sneer at it with malice, appreciate it from a far or go down right mental for it, the Kung Fu flick has grafted hard over the years and has surely made enough headway to be acknowledged for its rightful place in today’s popular culture.
What is most important for the survival of the Kung Fu film is that drives on and continues to prosper in its traditional and modern guise.