It's a miracle that we can see New York Ninja. The movie, which was the first and only American production from Taiwanese martial arts legend John Liu, was filmed in 1984. For whatever reason, Liu decided to abandon the project not long after filming wrapped. The good folks at Vinegar Syndrome acquired the unedited footage, only to find that all the sound recording was missing. They brought in a new voice cast -- including kickboxer Don "The Dragon" Wilson and legendary horror actress Linnea Quigley – to re-record all the dialogue, then added in '80s-era sound effects and synth music. The finished project arrives on 4K Blu-ray November 1, with a 35mm theatrical run scheduled for early in 2022.
Does New York Ninja deserve all that TLC? Absolutely. Although not what anyone would call a traditionally “good” movie, it's a delightful piece of old-fashioned '80s cheesiness. Anyone who, like me, lives for this stuff will want to get it on their eyeballs immediately.
Liu play John, the sound technician for one of the city's television stations. In the first scene, his wife tells him that she's pregnant. Minutes later, she's slain by a gang of criminals who are in the process of abducting a different woman. Her death scene is hilarious, as she gracefully "falls" down the stairs of a subway entrance. That's just the start of the film’s insanity.
John, of course, wants revenge. Armed with throwing stars and swords, he dons a ninja outfit that looks like a bunch of white bedsheets wrapped around him and starts tracking down the gang. It turns out the kidnappings are connected to a bizarre villain known as the Plutonium Killer. John has lots of delightful, clumsily-staged battles over the course of the story. He often takes on multiple assailants simultaneously. Aside from the fact that they only attack him one at a time, you can see the stuntmen pausing after hitting their marks so that Liu can punch or kick them. And when John slashes someone with his sword, they go down without any visible wounds or rips in their clothing.
New York Ninja offers up the sort of unpolished-but-energetic nonsense you can't get away with today. Audiences now are accustomed to highly polished cinema. They expect realistically-achieved fight scenes, stylish direction, and fast-paced editing. The '80s were a less cynical time. People then wouldn't necessarily have called this a great work, but they would have accepted its extremely rough edges (in part because the less demanding VHS format is where the majority of them would have seen it). For viewers willing to mentally time travel back to that era, the movie is a throughly enjoyable romp, full of campy moments that will make you laugh.
Vinegar Syndrome's sound work is excellent. If you didn't know they'd recreated everything, you wouldn't be able to tell from watching it. New York Ninja harkens back to a more innocent period of action filmmaking – an era before bloodshed became de rigeur, before non-stop mayhem turned into a requirement. If you want a dose of old-school low-fi martial arts fun, this is a picture you absolutely must see.
New York Ninja is unrated, but contains adult language, violence, and sexuality/nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 33 minutes.