New York Ninja

New York Ninja
February 11th 2022

Vinegar Syndrome is known for their gorgeous restorations, but with New York Ninja the company has gone one step further, creating a film faithful to the material but as much a product of 2021 as 1984. The story behind the film is part of its promotion. After a strong but not star-making career as one of kung-fu’s premier kickers, in 1981 John Liu went independent, completing three films in Mexico and Paris. In 1984 he went to New York and wrote, directed, choreographed, and starred in what was to be his American debut, New York Ninja, but abandoned the project during production. When director Kurtis Spieler decided to complete the film in 2021, he had just camera negatives to work with; all other materials were long lost. Only on-camera slates hinted what Liu intended, and if you’ve had the pleasure of seeing Liu’s bonkers mind-control-soldiers film Ninja In The Claws Of The C.I.A. (1981), which he also wrote, directed, and starred in, you’ll understand this was little guidance indeed.

Even knowing this, I still wouldn’t have guessed that all audio, including period-appropriate plot-summary rap, was created last year. Spieler correctly guessed asynchronous sound wouldn’t phase audiences used to a tradition of dubs, and had the genius idea to recast with adult and action actors—who better to read and translate body language to performance? The 2021 dubbers are a cavalcade of genre stars: Michael Berryman, Don Wilson, Linnea Quigley, Cynthia Rothrock, Leon Issac Kennedy, and others are as commanding vocally as they usually are physically.

As to the film itself, I could not call New York Ninja good by any standard—coherence, choreography, even basic technical competence are all lacking. There are the high kicks and leg control Liu literally tortured himself to master, though their inclusion is like setting the Hope Diamond in a Ring Pop. But good is a terrible metric by which to measure a movie, and this film delighted me. Between the gangs’ sartorial stylings (including underwear on head / football shoulder pads and cowboy hat / face paint / sweatpants), the 2-D “sexiness” of lingerie-clad kidnappees, and a killer’s plutonium addiction, New York Ninja watches like a seven year old wrote their version of a Charles Bronson movie, with all the overwrought emotions and non sequiturs that suggests. It’s a movie whose humanness can be read in every choice, even if those choices, like the leading lady’s fright wig, make no sense.

Liu’s ludicrously tiny budget allows for a cast of tens, including his actual wife playing his character’s wife and the same six guys swapping hats as every hood in the crime-ridden city. It also means plenty of run-and-gun shooting, adding the thrill of seeing on-the-street ’80s New York. But New York Ninja offers more than nostalgia fetishism; it’s a clear labor of love that doesn’t wink once, managing what I thought impossible—an intentionally-created, present-day cult film that watches like an organic one.

New York Ninja screens February 10–12 at the Roxy on 35mm. It will have a digital run later this month at Spectacle Theater.