In 1984, filming on New York Ninja was completed. However, the bankruptcy of the film’s distributor meant the film never saw the light of day, until this year that is. Though, this process was more difficult than it may sound. This restoration is more than meets the eye: a full on production effort from boutique Blu-Ray label Vinegar Syndrome. This isn’t just an old film getting found, this is the result of Vinegar Syndrome securing the rights to reels of unedited and soundless 35mm film stock (apparently 6-8 hours of footage) and then making a movie out of it. And not just making a movie out of it, making a film that actually has the feel of a 1984 B-Movie. All of this was done without access to storyboards or a proper script (aside from a shooting script that notably differed from the actual footage found). This film is so much more than a labour of love, it is a triumph of preservation and genre dedication, in which ‘re-director’ (his credit) and editor Kurtis M. Spieler gives us John Liu’s (original star, director and scripter) 1984 cult classic, New York Ninja, for the very first time.
A lost film that now sees the light of day is an inherently fascinating proposition, but it is even more so when the film is really fun. New York Ninja is exactly what you would expect from a 1984 B-Movie called New York Ninja. It’s trashy but fun exploitation made with a notably low budget that is taking advantage of the twin ’80s fascinations with roving gang crime and ninjas. In this film, Don “The Dragon” Wilson overdubs John Liu’s eponymous ninja (the New York one) in a Batman-esque tale of the death of a loved one leading to vigilante justice that will save the city. We begin with a loving couple, John (the soon to be ninja) just finding out his wife is pregnant. Moments later, his wife is dead, killed by a roving gang and setting John on the path to both ninjadom and vengeance. This is not an origin story per se, there is an implication that John was already a capable ninja with a life of martial arts firmly behind him but, fundamentally, the film has no interest in looking backwards. His wife dies; he is a martial artist; he beats up lots of street thugs.
The action itself is inventive and compelling, and joyously silly. The scope is limited by an obviously small budget but, in that, some real fun is found. The choreography is as you would want, a home grown feel that never feels too refined while also feeling imaginative and entertaining. John Liu is a convincing fighter on screen and the action scenes find ludicrous twists to keep it engaging (like him being on roller skates at one point). Outside of this, we have a growing subplot about trafficking, specifically abducting women for sinister men. This is also part of a storyline about an irradiated villain who murders via-plutonium. The elements don’t narratively cohere but they cohere in a B-Movie kind of way, feeling like the random and half-baked elements you would want to have in a 1984 ninjasploitation movie. At a few key moments, the treatment of women becomes a problem, including a scene of sexualised violence that could have easily been left with the other 6 hours of leftover footage. But, on the whole, the film does an amazing job of maintaining as much cohesion as it needs to.
This is, of course, a difficult balance. Part of the joy of these films is their wackiness and supposed badness. The recreation is built around preserving this, making the film work as a movie but also keeping the goofy edges that genre fans will be looking for. When evaluated this way, New York Ninja is a tremendous success. There is a tightness to the pacing and editing that comes from a modern sensibility, and that makes it a better watch, but it always feels like a film straight out of the ’80s. The dubbing and recreated script feels utterly appropriate and is so well pitched. This is a triumph of real understanding, of the right people taking on the right project and doing it in the right way. The music, from Voyag3r, is another highlight. The sounds feel like they sprung from the ’80s while also feeling like a fresh and exciting soundtrack, a killer sonic backdrop that further elevates the film.
New York Ninja is a hell of a thing. According to those that worked on the original project, the whole endeavour was a mess. Carl Morano, the original special effects artist, speaks about how they had “zero resources” and how “different people showed up on different days”, also estimating a special effects budget of $100. The restored and rebuilt version channels this fascinating energy but exists also as a complete and compelling film. These rough edges are allowed to be features, not bugs, as New York Ninja becomes a celebration of an era of filmmaking as well as an utter delight.