2021 has been a great year for new movies, but it’s been equally strong for killer home video releases of older films as well. The wild wizards at Vinegar Syndrome actually put out a title that’s a little bit of both — new and old, in equal measure. It’s called New York Ninja, and it is something truly special.
John Liu, a martial artist/actor/filmmaker, originally shot New York Ninja back in 1984. It was his only American production, and it was never finished or released. Liu abandoned the project, and over the years the audio elements ended up lost to time. The film reels, though, were discovered, kept safe, and eventually dropped into the possession of Vinegar Syndrome. It’s there where Kurtis Spieler decided the film could be given new life — a 4K scan and restoration of the original 35mm negative, a new script written by Spieler and performed by a stable of B-movie action stars, a new score, and an edit to help make sense of the otherwise out-of-order footage.
The result is an entertaining mix of action, comedy, and NYC charm straight out of the 80s. The Blu-ray release, though, is a slickly produced product of 2021.
A technician named John (Liu, voiced by Don Wilson) sees his happy life shattered when his pregnant wife is murdered by thugs. They’re part of a kidnapping ring supplying women to creepy bastards with money, mental issues, and mysterious ailments — one guy is some kind of radioactive mutant? maybe? — and John thinks they’re in need of extermination. The authorities aren’t doing anything to stop the abductions, crime, or multiracial, heavily costumed gang members. (Seriously, these guys obviously saw Walter Hill’s The Warriors but couldn’t agree on a theme for their own outfit.) But if they won’t, the New York Ninja will.
John costumes up and hits the street looking to punish evildoers with his martial arts skills, and the reaction is almost immediate. The goons begin to fear him, but the citizens realize he’s the avenging guardian they’ve been craving. Soon the big bad bosses are on his trail, and they know if they want to keep kidnapping women, chaining them up, and forcing them to wear wigs — so many wigs and face-coverings! — they’ll have to stop the ninja first.
The beauty of 2021’s New York Ninja is that it fully succeeds at feeling like the 80s relic it is. The footage is obviously the main reason for that — this is 80s NYC we’re seeing in all its grunge and glory. From a cityscape featuring multiple shots of the World Trade Center towers to crowd scenes highlighted by real city folk simply passing through the frame, it’s a smile-worthy time capsule for fans of the city and the decade in NYC film.
It should be noted that, by traditional standards at least, New York Ninja isn’t quite a lost classic of quality cinema. Instead, it’s a lost classic of low budget 80s action cinema. The action is more enthusiastic than artfully crafted so instead of being wowed or impressed by the fights you should expect only to be entertained by both Liu’s chops and the moves of Det. Janet Flores (voiced by Cynthia Rothrock, obviously). A late sequence involving a helicopter ups the ante just enough to end things with a bang.
The performances — even in this newly recorded form with voiceover work by Michael Berryman, Linnea Quigley, Leon Isaac Kennedy, Ginger Lynn, and more — are old-school, Hong Kong-style by design. The dubbing doesn’t care about matching the mouths, and that’s part of the charm of a low budget work of determination like this. Think the likes of Miami Connection (1987), a film that overcomes its acting, writing, and direction to deliver real entertainment for B-movie fans, and you’ll be in the right mindset for this blast from the past.
New York Ninja‘s script — Spieler’s, seeing as we don’t know what the original had in mind — is silly stuff as the basic gang antics are periodically interrupted with the shenanigans of “the Plutonium Killer,” a scarred, mutating millionaire who hypnotizes and burns women before killing them. Oh, and he has a pen that shoots darts and a rat-tailed British butler who fences with a cane. It’s bonkers, man, bonkers. If you’re still trying to appraise it with a serious eye by the time the army of child ninjas arrives, well, I don’t know what to tell you.
Who knows where New York Ninja would be if it had been completed back in the 80s and forced to live or die based on its own merits. In this form, though, finished through today’s eyes by real fans of the sub-genre, it’s a highly entertaining time.
The 4K restoration and new stereo mix reward the senses in the film itself, while an abundance of extras including a trailer, still gallery, and the following supplements offer hours of additional content.
- Introduction by Kurtis Spieler [2:02] – Spieler offers up a brief intro to what the film is and how this project came about. The commentary and making-of documentary go into more detail, obviously, but this covers the barebones basics of it all.
- Commentary by Kurtis Spieler – Spieler, the film’s editor/re-writer/re-director, shares his appreciation for the film and the genre while detailing the efforts that went into bringing it to life for the first (second?) time.
- Re-Enter the New York Ninja [48:44] – Various talking heads offer up a look at the film’s production that includes some detailed information on Liu’s background in martial arts films before he came to America. There’s a bit of a discrepancy between the “legend” and the reality here, particularly in the way the release’s doc/marketing states that no one associated with the original production is willing to discuss it — before featuring interviews with a producer, editor, actor, effects guy, etc. Still, that kind of thing fits the bill here since we’re talking about a movie no one expected to see the light of day. One other highlight involves Vinegar Syndrome’s in-house cyber-detective, Brad Henderson (also a producer, procurer, and all-around great guy), who shares how he found Liu living happily in a shack in Vietnam. It’s a fun doc and well worth a watch as a chaser to the film itself.
- Re-Directing New York Ninja [18:33] – Spieler goes into more detail on the discovery, organization, and production that took the film from scraps to completed motion picture. This is the interview his introduction is pulled from.
- The Music of New York Ninja [10:43] – The members of Voyag3r, the band tasked with scoring the newly finished film, discuss their work for the movie. Off topic, but I need the drummer’s They Live hat!
- Locations Unmasked [13:59] – Michael Gingold visits some of the film’s shooting locations in New York City to compare then and now.
- Deleted scenes [26:59] – With commentary by Spieler.
- Outtakes [10:18]
- Original sizzle reel VHS [9:27] – Footage from one of the only known surviving VHS tapes made to entice investors into funding the original film’s completion.