Plenty of things can make a movie good. And plenty more can make one bad. But there's a singular alchemy that makes a movie so-bad-it's-good. Basically, a bad movie can be inept and clumsy. Usually it's just dull. But a so-bad-it's-good movie is so inept, so clumsy and so and so rarely dull that those shortcomings become inversely configured as virtues, like a fart that reeks so terribly that you have to admire its superlative fartiness.
Miami Connection, which opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox this week, is being held up as the latest outstanding example of the so-bad-it's-good canon. Released in 1987 in a few cinemas in the greater Orlando area, Miami Connection retains plenty of the C-movie pleasures of so-bad-it's-good cinema: crummy acting, slapdash direction and nearly incomprehensible plotting. For about the first 20 minutes, it's hard to tell who the movie is even about, until its protagonists - a martial arts advocating synth-rock band called Dragon Sound - stumble to centre stage.
Watching it in a bleary revel when it was re-released on home video last December, after being salvaged and remastered by the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, I had a hard time discerning whether it was an actual, real, abandoned genre movie or something self-consciously constructed to resemble one. It hit that bad/good bull's eye so perfectly. Almost too perfectly, my not-not-high brain warily reckoned.
Some post-viewing Googling revealed that Miami Connection was very much the real-deal, legitimately worthy of all the new best-worst movie hype. But for Zack Carlson, a former Drafthouse programmer who rediscovered Miami Connection after buying it on eBay for $50, there's no such thing as "so-bad-it's good."
"I don't think Miami Connection is bad," Carlson says over the phone. "I don't think so-bad-it's-good even exists. That whole way of approaching movies is complete bullshit. It frustrates me to no end that that's how people have to compartmentalize films to enjoy them."
For Carlson, if a movie is entertaining, then it's good. And that's that. Which, well...fair enough.
There aren't many things more more banal than diagnosing the millennial culture of irony: the one the New York Times famously analyzed in the much-shared Opinionator column "How To Live Without Irony," in which Christy Wampole dismantled "the ethos of our age" about four years too late. Still, the rise in so-bad-it's-good cinema - marked in recent years by the cult popularity of films like The Room, Troll 2 and Birdemic: Shock And Terror - seems to stem from an insincere (or ironic) recuperation of badness.
It could just be the natural curdling of Gen X's slacker sincerity, but there's something - maybe not a whole generational ethos, but something - that encourages the ironic individual (or "hipster" or, per Wampole, "contemporary urban harlequin") to exuberantly enjoy something without having to gamble anything meaningful against that exuberance. There's no risk of being criticized for your enthusiasm, because that enthusiasm is itself a carefully veiled form of critique. Instead of saying, "Hey I like this thing" and risking a dismissive Pffffft from a flippant peer, you're preemptively rejigging the dismissive Pffffft as a form of enjoyment. And maybe those bracketing quotes are stifling as much as they're re-contextualizing. That's the gist of it anyway.
For Carlson, Miami Connection is anti-ironic. It signals a shift away from contemptuous enjoyment-in-quotation-marks and toward something closer to A New Sincerity.
"One of the things that makes Miami Connection stand out is that [the filmmakers] didn't know how to structure a movie," he says. "They didn't know how to make a movie in any way, none of them were professional actors, and all of these things were working against them. But anyone who watches Miami Connection, whether they admit it or not, will get really pumped up, and really start to care about these characters."
Carlson hits on the thing that gets a lot of folks who enjoy so-bad-it's-good cinema: sincerity. Even if the results come across hopeless - even laughable - there's a mitigating earnestness of intent that's tough, if not out-and-out mean, to laugh at. This is especially true of Miami Connection, a film that, more so than any other top-echelon film in this weird counter-canon, proceeds from what Carlson identifies as its "generosity of spirit."
Fun as The Room is to watch, both as a shitty movie and a thrilling portrait of its bizarro maker's inflated egoism, misogyny and martyr complex ("Everyone is against me! All women are evil! Aruggggh!" the film half-coherently screams throughout its runtime), or as Birdemic is to squirm through (for the first-half anyway) as a botched revenge-of-nature movie, Miami Connection has a whole other, more likeable, range of assets.
"Miami Connection is so innocent," says Carlson. "This guy [director Richard Park] just really wanted to tell his story about taekwondo and friendship. I don't know if there is another Miami Connection. I've never really seen in another movie. And I pretty much only watch movies like this."
Miami Connection may seem like another sub-direct-to-VHS genre caper or, at times, like a taekwondo delivery system designed to bring star Y.K. Kim to a broader audience, but it's ultimately a movie about camaraderie. It doesn't wail about human duplicity like The Room or proselytize tongue-tied about the environment like Birdemic. Simply, Miami Connection is a film about how a group of best friends who practice martial arts and jam in a cheesy rock band together can shut down a cocaine distribution network operated by motorcycle-riding ninjas. As Carlson says, "You show that movie to a 12 year old kid and that kid is going to lose their mind."
Appreciating a film for both its strengths and its limitations - liking it for what it is, instead of what we'd like it to be - feels more like an honest act of cultural recuperation. It's totally OK to laugh at Miami Connection' sillier bits, but writing it off with a contemptuous raspberry feels entirely too nasty, the equivalent of Pffffft-ing some 12 year-old kid for looking like a dork in his ill-fitting Legend of Zelda hat.
Miami Connection's virtues - friendship, loyalty, honesty, sincerity and not doing "that stupid cocaine" - might feel regressive, even infantile, for an adult audience to enjoy. But at least they're earnest, and almost defiantly non-ironic. Sometimes you have to backtrack to basics in order to wiggle out the confines of those suffocating quotation marks.