New York Ninja review – A labor of love brings a film back from the dead

New York Ninja review – A labor of love brings a film back from the dead

In 1984 a martial artist named John Liu wrote, directed, and starred a film called New York Ninja. In it we follow John, a mild-mannered everyman who, after witnessing the violent death of his pregnant wife at the hands of some street toughs, decides to take matters into his own hands. He dons a white ninja suit and begins kicking justice directly into the faces of any thug who wants a piece. The New York Ninja is born, and soon he becomes a sort of folk hero to the citizens of the Big Apple. Criminals fear him and gangsters resent him, but nobody knows who he is. As John works to clean up the streets, he also works to protect his identity, all while on the front lines of of a crime wave (John is a camera technician who works for a hungry news reporter). Oh, and also there’s a radioactive ex-CIA baddie who…melts? Yeah, that’s the ticket. He melts! He also kidnaps, assaults, and murders women. But soon his reign of terror will meet its match. It will meet the karate chops and roundhouse kicks of the New York Ninja!

Ok, so that is the current plot of New York Ninja, but it might not be the original plot. You see, back in 1984, Liu never got to finish his film. When the company in charge of distribution went under, the reels were lost to the ages. Somehow, they ended up in the vaults of Vinegar Syndrome, who decided to see just what they could make out of the footage. This task fell to Kurtis M. Spieler, the newly credited re-director of New York Ninja. Spieler assembled the footage into something coherent and then wrote a script based on what came together. Did I mention that the footage had no sound? Well, the footage had no sound. There was a shooting script floating around, but Spieler avoided it until after his edit was complete (as I understand it, the shooting script is pretty minimal/loose to begin with).

Vinegar Syndrome then had to record a new audio track for the film. In staying committed to authenticity, they didn’t just hire voice actors to do the job. Instead, they brought in a bevy of genre talent from the exact era New Your Ninja would have been released, including Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Linnea Quigley, Cynthia Rothrock, and Michael Berryman. For the score, they brought in Voyag3r to give Ninja the synthwave sound it very likely would have had.

The result is a movie that feels as if it was ripped directly from the annals of 80s New York movies and Brucesploitation flicks, even if much of what we see and hear was constructed here in the modern day. If I didn’t know the story behind this wonderful restoration effort, I wouldn’t have ever guessed it occurred. It’s an impressive feat of verisimilitude, and even though knowledge of the behemoth effort that went into bringing this film to life is an enhancement to the experience of watching it, it’s not a requirement. Sure, stuff like New York Ninja is something genre fans imbibe as a sort of novelty on the whole, but there’s a degree of quality within that distinction, and this one is certainly of a higher grade. I credit a level of earnestness that seems to have permeated the original shoot as well as this new assembly. What I mean is that while it’s certainly cheesy, neither the older or more contemporary elements ever wink or nod. It’s all done earnestly, with an eye toward making the best damn movie that can be made given the available resources. New York Ninja is much more on par with stuff like Death Promise or Miami Connection than it is to later genre homages like Turbo Kid or Kung Fury.

From beginning to end, New York Ninja is a total blast. Memorable one-liners, absurdly imaginative fight choreography (one scene is inexplicably fought on roller skates), and a freeze frame ending that ranks amongst the best I’ve ever seen. The folks at Vinegar Syndrome even managed to do the ultimate 80s homage: the closing credits feature an original New York Ninja rap song. At the end of the credits a block of text indicates that such little information exists about the original film that the restoration team was unable to get in touch with any of its performers. It also invites any of them to get in touch if they so happen to see the film. Such a charming thought, and I really hope it happens. It would be wonderful if some of the artists surfaced, if only so they could see their work resonating with a new and unexpected audience. At a time when we film fans are watching mega-streamers take over the world of film exhibition while powerful companies clamp down on their archives of IP, a project like this really speaks volumes to the importance of keeping physical media alive. If not for the tangibility of those lost reels, New York Ninja would functionally cease to exist. And if not for companies like Vinegar Syndrome going to crazy lengths to put out stacked physical releases of weird genre shit, so many other films, no matter how popular and beloved they might be now, could disappear like  ninjas in the night.

When I say stacked, I mean stacked. Check out these specs:

  • Scanned and restored in 4K from tis 35mm original camera negative (it looks siiiick)
  • Commentary with re-writer/re-director Kurtis M. Spieler
  • Re-Enter The New York Ninja: an extended making of documentary with the cast and crew
  • Re-Direcitng New York Njina: an interview with Kurtis M. Spieler
  • The music of New York Ninja: interviews with members of Voag3r
  • Locatons Unmasked: revisiting the locatuons of New York Ninja with Michael Gingold
  • Deleted scenes with commentary
  • B-roll and outtake montage
  • Original sizzle reel VHS
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Still Gallery

You really should buy it. I did!!!

And you can by going to Vinegar Syndrome

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