Review: 'New York Ninja'

By: Heather Seebach

In 1984, martial artist John Liu set out to make his first American film, serving as director, star, producer, and more. The core plot of New York Ninja is a familiar one to genre fans: a man's wife is murdered by thugs, propelling him into the role of an unlikely vigilante cleaning up the streets of 80s New York City. It was shot guerilla-style on-location with a miniscule crew. The movie wrapped filming but was unfortunately left gathering dust in storage after funding fell through and the production was abandoned. The sound elements of the film were lost over time, along with many of the original cast and crew as there were no credits, call sheets, or even a script anywhere to be found.

The film reels passed through many hands over the last thirty-five years, even Troma Entertainment who felt the movie was unsalvageable. Fortunately, the heroes at Vinegar Syndrome took a shot at the seemingly unfathomable task of reconstructing New York Ninja from the original unedited negative. What followed was one seriously ambitious jigsaw puzzle that involved trying to make sense of the jumbled footage without any sound or context, then having to reverse-engineer a script. Where there were gaps in the narrative, the VinSyn team drew upon their extensive knowledge of other 80s ninja films to maintain authenticity as much as possible. 

The source material is wild and it is easy to see why they could not just let this film be lost to time, or even worse, the garbage bin. Despite the guerilla style in which it was made, New York Ninja has some pretty legit action shots and stunts. It also has rare footage of 42nd Street in the heyday of exploitation cinemas, along with ridiculous, scene-stealing comic book villains and copious amounts of WTF. 

With the popularity of "so-bad-they're-good" movies these days, it must have been tempting to deliberately inject humor into the film but it never feels that way. While taking some artistic liberties is inevitable in a situation like this, the VinSyn guys did an incredible job preserving the source material and letting the bonkers footage speak for itself. When you have a roller skating ninja and a henchman who chews on his own rattail, you don't need to add anything. This is not Kung Pow: Enter the Fist; the ADR serves only to re-create the original performances (many of whom are still unidentified), not to add parody or forced irony. A couple of genre legends were recruited to lend their voices, including Don 'The Dragon' Wilson, Cynthia Rothrock, Michael Berryman, Linnea Quigley, and Leon Isaac Kennedy. Wilson had an especially challenging task as Liu's original lead performance is notably over-the-top. Liu's camp performance often provides the film's natural humor that will easily solidify its place among cult favorites like Miami Connection or The Room

In addition to the dialogue, the score had to be re-created. For this endeavor, synth-rock band Voyag3r was brought onboard to provide an authentic sound for the era. They did their research, including watching other John Liu films, and the result is a soundtrack that you will absolutely believe was born in 1984. It is suitably synth-heavy without being an undue distraction. The film even has a ninja rap which was amazingly tracked down from the source and not a modern-day addition! 

I am a purist when it comes to cult/bad/b-movies so I was originally hesitant at the thought of a film being "tampered with" but the reality is, they saved it. When scientists unearth 80% of a dinosaur skeleton, they fill in the missing bits and take a few liberties to re-create the animal for our viewing pleasure. The same has been done here for a film that would otherwise be lost forever. It goes without saying but genre fans can trust the film preservationists at Vinegar Syndrome to treat a movie like this with respect and not bog it down with hipster nonsense. They have resurrected it for all to see, as it was meant to be seen. The sleazy grindhouses of 42nd Street may be gone but New York Ninja lives on!

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