The idea of a genuine “lost” 80s ninja movie is every ninjologist’s dream. There’s a certain kudos attached to obscurity when it comes to these movies (entirely in keeping with the shadowy, mysterious ways of the ninja themselves) and, as this blog name has always suggested, even when you think you’ve found them all, there’s still more ninjas to come racing in from the darkness. Ninjologists rejoiced when Y.K. Kim’s Miami Connection, a 1987 film that was screened once and never released or seen again, was rediscovered and re-released by Drafthouse in 2012. But New York Ninja tops it for obscurity. Miami Connection was restored with the full participation of its creator and the print was at least complete. New York Ninja was not. It was a long-abandoned unfinished project with no sound, no credits and no ending. No one knew anything about it. The reels had sat there unopened for some 35 years and the seller’s suggestion was to just throw away them away as they were useless. Vinegar Syndrome, understanding they must fulfil the vision of the Supreme God Ninja, did no such thing…
I know, this sounds like fiction. This sounds like it’s all part of an elaborate gimmick but it’s not, it’s 100% legit. New York Ninja was originally the project of martial artist, actor and filmmaker John Liu. He was one of many Taiwanese hopefuls pumping out films during the late 70s kung fu boom and is probably best known for appearing in the seminal Secret Rivals films. Like most stars of that epoch, he directed a couple of films himself. He plays a character called “John Liu” in all of them, clearly trying to carve himself a brand, but they weren’t really successful. It’s a shame because Liu and so many of his peers were insanely talented by most people’s standards. Taiwan was Hong Kong’s scrappier little brother when it came to filmmaking but there was nonetheless an abundance of skill and creative energy there. Liu, with just one lucky break, could have been a superstar.
His last shot at worldwide stardom, prior to retiring from film and apparently moving to a shack in rural Vietnam, was New York Ninja, an American production funded by 21st Century Film Corporation. They clearly thought they had a good shot at finding if not the next Bruce Lee then at least the next Sho Kosugi in John Liu, who would write, direct and star in the film. Sho Kosugi had proven that, at last, an American film could be successful with an East Asian lead just so long as he was a ninja, so why not?
Unfortunately, for reasons mostly lost to time, the production halted and never restarted. Even though the majority of the film had been shot, the footage was left on the shelf, unedited, unloved. Kurtis M. Spieler from Vinegar Syndrome – in a decision that can be only described as both heroic and insane – took it upon himself to not just restore the footage that existed but actually edit it into a movie. Considering there was no sound, no script, no obvious running order to the scenes and no one around to ever explain the film’s intentions, that’s a Hell of a feat. He admits that when he edited a soundless rough cut based on the scene numbers, it “made no sense at all”. So he had his work cut out.
Spieler wrote a whole new script based around the footage he had and hired a bunch of exploitation and kung fu movie luminaires to dub it, including bonafide legends like Don “The Dragon” Wilson (who voices John Liu), Cynthia Rothrock, Linnea Quigley, Michael Berryman and the incomparable Ginger Lynn. His intention, rather than going the easy way and creating a Shaolin Dolemite style comedy dub that roasted the movie’s weak points, was to stay true to the spirit of the footage and complete it as best he could. Liu himself was apparently uninterested in revisiting his previous career at all and wouldn’t talk to anyone about it. Spieler therefore was on his own trying to reinterpret and revitalize the spirit of New York Ninja but he knew there’d be an audience for it if he could. The result is… surprisingly great.
Liu plays, as is customary, “John Liu”, a mild-mannered newsman whose beloved wife Nita is murdered by the thugs terrorising New York. They wear preposterous make-up and outfits somewhere between the Village People, The Warriors and The Legion of Doom and the police are powerless to stop these dayglo punks. So there’s only one thing for it. Liu straps on his ninja suit, lights a few candles, and grabs his shuriken. Although New York Ninja may cashes in on the grimy but enduring New York vigilante craze (ala Death Wish and The Exterminator), it’s a surprisingly wholesome plot. “The Ninja” becomes a local hero, beloved by children, including his Short Round-like protege The Kid, who legit assembles an army of mini-ninjas to step in when they’re needed. Less wholesome is what’s behind all the killings and kidnappings of young women in New York. It’s preposterous pervert in sunglasses with a Repo Man/Kiss Me Deadly briefcase that gives him some kind of gooey plutonium-enhanced powers…!
Yes, New York Ninja blends the ninja craze with vigilantes, little kids, sexy 80s babes, nuclear paranoia and a dash of supernatural gore/horror. Characters tote signs, t-shirts and badges (bearing the 21st Century Distribution logo!) with “I ❤ New York Ninja” on them, in a clear merchandising bid. There’s no doubt that John Liu had scanned the culture and made a valiant attempt to give the people what they want. But the lack of budget shows. While Liu himself is a good-looking lead with formidable martial arts skills, the rest of the cast are a mix of long forgotten non-actors, NYC weirdoes, porn stars and – surprisingly – real life news anchor Adrienne Meltzer (who was apparently trying to get an acting career going but only seems to have ever acted in the roles of news reporters!). She’s a really good sport in the role of Randi Rydell though. Her character keeps trying to cover the New York Ninja story with her cameraman Jack, but is constantly being attacked, molested, groped, kidnapped and otherwise menaced for her troubles.
Being fair on what remains of the source material, New York Ninja has enough charm to warrant cult status. It’s unlikely it would’ve been a hit because it’s just so cheap but I’m sure it would’ve won fans in ninjologists, just because it has SO MUCH bokken for your buck. The ninjing in it is really fun with lots of weaponry and Liu’s trademark tae kwon do style kicks. It’s always a pleasure to see iredeemable perps in bad fashions getting duffed up and this offers scene upon scene of duffings. Liu also hits the jackpot with the classic iconography of ninjas and skylines. There’s a ton of guerilla-style outdoor filming of New York and Randi’s nocturnal trek through Times Square is gorgeous (it’s no coincidence that Ninja III : The Domination is one of the films on the playbill though!). There’s some decent footage here despite the cheapness but Enter The Dragon it ain’t.
However, a phenomenal amount of respect has to go to Kurtis M. Spieler. I’ve said it before but actually ‘getting’ these kind of films is so rare. There are so many Godawful 80s pastiches that just lampoon all the flaws and make fun of people who, for the most part, were trying their best, but Spieler plays this entirely straight and creates something sublime. What’s particularly beautiful is that by re-editing it, rewriting it and dubbing it with totally made-up dialogue, he’s staying very true to the ultimate ninja spirit of Godfrey Ho and his cut and paste films. It all feels genuinely authentic, which in an age defined by reference and irony and artifice, is a thing worth celebrating. That said, this is a far slicker (ninja) operation than anything Ho did, made with a lot of care, love and technical skill.
If you ever want to truly understand the craft and effort that goes into B-Movies, New York Ninja is an essential watch. On account of how it was assembled (and the myriad extras on the Blu-Ray that talk you through it), you can really appreciate the level of work, as well as the quality of it. The voice cast here are fantastic. While the dubbing obviously doesn’t result in the performances being conventionally “good”, the voice work itself is exemplary. They’ve completely captured the style of 80s ADR without ever lapsing into parody and do a great job of matching new dialogue to lips that were often saying something completely different. It’s so convincing that Adrienne Meltzer (the only original cast member they could track down to interview) thought they genuinely found her audio when she watched Linnea Quigley’s dub of her and was shocked to find it was someone else! Don “The Dragon” Wilson is great here too, giving John Liu exactly the right level of camp that his exagerrated, very Taiwanese-style performance inspires but also keeping the emotional core of the film intact.
The emotional core is key to the film’s ultimate success. A movie like New York Ninja, in both original intention and remixed form, relies on a visceral response. Much like the visceral art of any combat sport, martial arts based narratives have to use a certain physical language to provoke such seemingly simple emotions as love and hate in the viewer. New York Ninja paints in absurdly broad strokes at times but anything more nuanced would mess it up. For example, it opens with a scene in which John tells Nita repeatedly how much he loves her. He gives her a special gift. She tells him she’s pregnant. It’s also her birthday. AND THEN she gets killed! Knifed up by a despicable thug called Freddy Cufflinks (!). John sits surrounded by balloons, wrapping paper and gifts, screaming “WHYYYYYY?” to the rooftops. He cuts up his hand with the broken glass from the smashed photo of them that he intended to give her as a gift. After that relentless outpouring of grief, how can you NOT want to see Cufflinks and his horrible mob die the slicey, dicey deaths they deserve? It’s a simple emotional core but it exists and Spieler feels it.
The best B-Movies are aware of their own absurdity but refuse to acknowledge it and New York Ninja sits squarely in this canon. It works on two different levels – firstly, as a superb example of the form, an 80s ninja movie that delivers what it promises with no nonsense and a few mental twists (the plutonium deaths are wonderfully OTT), but also as a unique artefact. A film that was a product of its time that has somehow been completed, a lifetime later, by absolutely no one involved in the original shoot. Lovers of 80s cinema are always chasing that dragon, trying to find something that delivers the thrills of the most excessive decade and most things never will. But this, this is the real deal. Moreso even that Miami Connection, New York Ninja is a bonafide oddity, a tremendous feat of care and attention and just a really good time.
Recommended to ninjologists at all levels.
[Tip of the Bokken to rockshockpop.com whose screencaps I stole!]