REVIEW: New York Ninja [2021]

Rating: 6 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 93 minutes
    Release Date: November 1st, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Vinegar Syndrome
    Director(s): John Liu (original) / Kurtis Spieler (restoration)
    Writer(s): John Liu & Arthur Schweitzer / Kurtis Spieler (new dialogue)

This city owes me … justice.

Taiwanese actor John Liu never made it to the big time in Hong Kong. Despite being known in the industry as having one of its “best kicks,” he would eventually create his own production company to write/direct/star in three actioners set in Paris and Mexico. While a fourth production entitled New York Ninja did finish principal photography, however, it was never completed before Liu retired from the business to begin teaching his own martial arts form known as Zen Kwan Do (which kept a cult following in France and nowhere else). Whether distribution shingle Vinegar Syndrome purposefully sought that lost footage out is unknown to me, but they ultimately found, restored, edited, and re-dubbed it into a brand new 1980s cinematic experience for the twenty-first century.

The credits are obviously a mess. Liu is listed as co-writer with Arthur Schweitzer and co-director/writer with this edition’s steward Kurtis Spieler. Since the original audio had long since disappeared, Spieler needed to create new dialogue while assembling a team of 80s actors to dub over the performances of those who unfortunately remain uncredited due to a lack of documentation. He oversaw the creation of an original score by Voyag3r as well as extensive foley work for sound effects. Just thinking about the amount of effort that went into bringing this unknown cinematic treasure back to life hurts my brain and it’s nothing short of a miraculous piece of artistic intrigue—regardless of the footage itself. New York Ninja isn’t for everyone, but everyone can appreciate it.

It commences with a poorly orchestrated bit of staging (there are many) where Nita (voiced by Ginger Lynn) is standing on a sidewalk, waiting for her husband (Liu’s John, voiced by Don Wilson) to hit his mark. They talk about the night’s celebrations with her alluding to a surprise that she can no longer wait to share. Nita is pregnant and John is over the moon. But he must go to work (what we’ll finally learn much later is a sound engineer job for a news station). So, they go their separate ways with her path unfortunately running across that of a gangster (Freddy Cufflinks, voiced by Matt Mitler) in the process of abducting the latest in a string of missing women. He slits her throat.

John’s co-workers (reporter Randi Rydell, voiced by Linnea Quigley, and cameraman Jack, voiced by Vince Murdocco) are distraught. Detective Jimmy Williams (voiced by Leon Isaac Kennedy) says they’re doing all they can. And the men pulling Freddy’s strings (the enigmatic Plutonium Killer, voiced by Michael Berryman, and Pale Man, voiced by Bill Timoney) continue their operation. What is John to do then but take matters into his own hands as a vigilante wielding the swords his late wife was gifting him that fateful night? He’ll be his own sort of Superman, playing Clark Kent with the news crew before disappearing into his robe while they film him wreaking vengeance on the streets in virtual slow-motion with every bad guy patiently waiting his turn for an inevitable beat down.

There’s no getting around it: New York Ninja is a bad film. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a bad time. This is true even without hindsight considering many choices that were made by Liu all but guarantee he was in on the joke. The mismatched costuming for gang members (winter clothing, strips of plastic, face paint, and rubber masks) will have you believing that the filmmakers saw The Warriors and thought it was a documentary); the eventual introduction of a child hype man known as “The Kid” (voiced by Zihan Zhao) who gets a band of children to form an unofficial fan club ready to defeat crime themselves; the etched throwing stars with the title of the film. It’s all hyper stylized for campy fun.

One instance towards the end shows John putting on a button with his brand (t-shirts and the like are sold on every street corner by then) and the words “21st Century Distribution Corporation,” bringing that meta scene in Spaceballs advertising its own merchandise in-film to mind. It’s no wonder Spieler and company decided to put so much work into this thing—it was too wild to willfully allow it to remain forgotten. I couldn’t tell you anything about what’s going on (The Plutonium Killer is often seen placing a candle next to his face so his skin can start melting as though he’s healed in the dark but chooses to be creepy anyway), but you don’t need context beyond John kicking anyone who dares to do any harm.

Not that John is without critique. At one point he lures Randi out from her hiding spot (she’s already been attacked once while Jack simply kept filming—in his defense, she told him to keep filming when both watched two women being attacked earlier on) only to let her be taken because the sight of a gun stops him in his tracks. Only one person ever shoots him, though. The rest seem to like the idea that he’ll still be able to beat them up later when they aren’t pressed for time. Start looking too deeply into those narrative mechanics, however, and you’re setting yourself up for a very bad experience. You either like watching this nonsense or you don’t. It’s hardly a “genre” known for converting non-believers.

So, know what you’re getting into here: idiotic villains, helpless victims, and a heroic everyman willing to shamelessly ham it up for the camera in a last-second fourth wall-breaking send-off. Whether that sounds like the best or worst way to spend ninety-minutes, it will be that and more. As I said above, however, there’s value for cinephiles either way due to the sheer scale of what had to happen for New York Ninja to even be available for you to love or hate it. That the overdubbing, sound effects, and soundtrack work in tandem with only a few instances of being out-of-sync with the visuals proves a masterclass of behind-the-scenes expertise that should only bolster the reality that below-the-line film crew deserve everything they’re currently seeking and more.

courtesy of Vinegar Syndrome

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