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'Miami Connection' goes from flop to fame

By Mike Ayers, Special to CNN
November 8, 2012 -- Updated 1949 GMT (0349 HKT)
A love for all things '80s is helping to stir affection for
A love for all things '80s is helping to stir affection for "Miami Connection," a film that bombed when it first came out.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "Miami Connection" follows the adventures of a group of college martial-arts experts
  • The movie bombed in the '80s but was purchased recently on eBay for $50
  • Moviegoers in Texas loved its '80s cheese, and the film is now being rereleased

(CNN) -- Thirty minutes into the movie "Miami Connection" the audience sees a classic '80s montage scene, except there's something a bit off.

The film's heroes, a group of five University of Central Florida students who are martial-arts experts (and orphans), hit up the beach for some much needed fun in the sun. (They're in a band called Dragon Sound, which serves as a vehicle for their tae kwon do-inspired songs). As the band members drive along the shore, they catcall out to women with painful lines such as "they don't make buns like those down at the bakery," trying to pick them up using phony French accents.

The dialogue hardly matches up with the characters' mouth movements, and the scene ends with two characters making out in the tide, waves crashing down around them. In the context of the film, nothing about this scene really drives the plot, furthers the character development or makes much sense at all. Which is exactly why some fans consider it great.

But the term "great" is relative. Originally made in 1987, "Miami Connection" was rediscovered in June 2009 when Zack Carlson, a programmer at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin, Texas, came across it on eBay and made a blind bid on it. He won it for a mere $50, having no idea he was the first step in the film's unlikely comeback.

"We played a reel in the (Alamo Drafthouse), and the few people that were in the theater went bananas," Carlson said. "We instantly scheduled the movie to play during our weekly exploitation series."

Though it's not always easy to figure out what exactly is going on in "Miami Connection," the story follows members of Dragon Sound as they find themselves mixed up with a group of ninjas linked to the bubbling cocaine trade out of Miami. It stars Grandmaster Y.K. Kim, a central Florida martial-arts expert, who was pitched the idea of a feature-length film after director Richard Park saw him in the mid-'80s on the South Korean talk show "Meet at 11 p.m."

Most of the actors and crew were Kim's tae kwon do students. With the assistance of funding from Kim and some investors, "Miami Connection" was filmed in Orlando and Miami. Kim said he had high hopes that his creative work would find a distributor and explode onto the national scene.

"When I finished the movie, I showed this to hundreds of different studios and distribution companies," Kim said. "They all said, 'This is trash. Don't waste your time.' "

Still, Kim pressed on. The film opened in September 1988, limited to eight theaters in the Orlando area. He continued trying to get major distributors for a national release and even tried to rally Hollywood bigwigs at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. But the film bombed, and Kim saw his endeavor slip into obscurity (along with the roughly $1 million it cost to make).

When Carlson got a hold of it, enough time had passed so that it was received as something wholly different. He screened it around Austin and noticed a huge, positive response. Moviegoers ate up the bad dialogue, laughed at the bad special effects and staged ninja fights, and reveled in a heavy dose of '80s cheese.

Carlson pushed the film to Evan Husney, creative director for the Alamo Drafthouse's distribution arm, Drafthouse Films. In December, Husney called Kim and told him he wanted to rerelease the movie. Thinking it was some sort of cruel joke, Kim hung up several times. Husney courted him for months before the deal to resurrect "Miami Connection" was made.

Now, decades later, thanks in part to the current love of irony and an enduring fascination with all things '80s, the film is enjoying an impressive victory lap. It screened at the New York Asian Film Festival in July and Los Angeles' Everything Is Festival in August, where the reaction was largely the same as Carlson witnessed when he first discovered it.

"What I'd like to think is that people really get enthusiastic about the sincerity in the movie," Carlson said. "They initially get pulled in by the irony, the '80s fashion, but what's underneath it is very entertaining. People respond to many different things, but they start to like the characters."

"Miami Connection" is seeing the national rollout in theaters that Kim had always hoped would happen. DVDs, Blu-rays and soundtracks are available -- even vinyl singles for those wanting to keep things fittingly retro. Kim is going to a handful of showings and providing a martial-arts demonstration for moviegoers. The experience has taught Carlson that "bad movies that people respond to aren't actually bad."

"There's a sincerity within them that people latch onto," he said. "There's not a lot of technique or talent behind 'Miami Connection.' But there's so much initiative and dedication behind it, even if they failed at what they were trying to do. They were really into it and really trying. That's why people are responding to it now."

"Miami Connection" opens November 9 in Los Angeles and New York, with a nationwide release in other cities scheduled through December.

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