‘New York Ninja’ Film Review: Cult Movie’s Backstory as a ‘Lost Film’ More Interesting Than Anything on Screen

·4-min read
Vinegar Syndrome

More consideration probably went into the restoration than the original production of “New York Ninja,” a cheesy vigilante action pic that was shot and abandoned in 1984.

Newly edited and “re-directed” by producer Kurtis Spieler (Vinegar Syndrome re-released the movie on Blu-ray and is opening it in select theaters), “New York Ninja” was originally conceived as a star vehicle for Taiwanese martial artist turned writer-director John Liu, who previously starred in a few other kung fu cheapies like “Secret Rivals” and “The Invincible Armour.” You can imagine why Liu quit making movies after he shot “New York Ninja,” despite Spieler’s best efforts with this newly re-assembled, re-scored, and completely re-dubbed version of Liu’s movie.

Liu’s original footage has some scrappy charms, but the movie’s main draw is its footage of 1980s NYC and a new period- and mood-appropriate voice cast of 1980s cult movie stars, including Michael Berryman, Leon Isaac Kennedy, and Linnea Quigley. (The original cast members are unknown and therefore uncredited, except for Liu, who couldn’t be reached by Spieler.) The new “New York Ninja” often feels like a pre-fab midnight movie that was made with apparent love and care but without much urgency or creativity.

In Spieler’s “New York Ninja,” Liu plays John (voiced by Don “The Dragon” Wilson), a distraught New Yorker who takes justice into his own hands after Jimmy Cufflinks (Matt Miler), a street tough in an angora fedora, murders John’s pregnant wife Nita (Ginger Lynn Allen). Nita’s death inadvertently draws John into a simultaneously vague and convoluted plot masterminded by the Plutonium Killer (Berryman), a shady character who pays the Pale Man (Bill Timoney) to kidnap women for his dungeon basement. John chases after the Plutonium Killer as the New York Ninja, a masked hero who frustrates the NYPD — led by detectives Jimmy (Kennedy) and Janet (Cynthia Rothrock) — and inspires everyone else, particularly nosy TV reporter Randi (Quigley) and impressionable orphan “the Kid” (Zihan Zhao).

Despite Spieler’s intentions, his “New York Ninja” often feels like a pandering homage to other movies of the period, particularly Cannon’s cycle of chop-socky ninja pics, like “Enter the Ninja” and “Ninja III: The Domination,” as well as Troma’s gross-out superhero comedies “The Toxic Avenger” and “Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D.”

Voyag3r’s distracting new synth-heavy score never lets us forget that we’re watching an homage and not an authentically corny throwback. And the movie’s combination of old footage with new vocal performances makes it hard to enjoy the original actors’ campy performances, despite the voice cast’s better efforts. Some voice-cast members match their on-screen counterparts better than others: Berryman, Rothrock, and Timoney all excel in their respective roles, possibly because they’re the most experienced of this rag-tag bunch of fan favorites.

“New York Ninja” has enough high-concept charms to be watchable, even if its plot doesn’t really stick together or build in tension from moment to moment. You don’t really need to care about John’s character development to dig Liu’s exploitation-friendly footage, highlights of which include a couple of goofy sword fights and an appropriately sleazy sex scene. If you’re watching Spieler’s “New York Ninja”, it’s probably because you’ve already seen and enjoyed this type of movie before. Maybe you’re a fan of flamboyant heavies, hyper-real sound effects or jarring post-dubbed dialogue. Or maybe you’ll enjoy the uniquely surreal experience of watching character actors over-emote while unknown amateur performers try to do, uh, something on-screen.

Still, Spieler’s movie often looks scattered enough to make one wonder what motivated Liu and why so little of his passion for this project translated into his footage. What would Liu have done with the Kid’s endearingly silly sub-plot — Zhao’s character leads a mob of kiddie fans who cheer on John’s heroic persona — or the brief sequence where John slowly and methodically frees the Plutonium Killer’s variably dressed female victims from their dungeon restraints? Or how about scenes where the Plutonium Killer gets high and/or scarred after poring over a mysterious glowing box? These scenes now look like a scatterbrained homage to the iconic 1955 film noir “Kiss Me Deadly” and its apocalyptic MacGuffin, but Spieler’s re-assembled footage doesn’t necessarily reflect Liu’s inciting enthusiasm.

The best reason to watch “New York Ninja” is in its title. Liu clearly saw the dramatic and/or marketable potential in various NYC exteriors and filled as many scenes as possible with urban iconography. His frequent use of master shots (whenever there’s more than person in frame) suggests that Liu understood that more is always more. Every conversation scene feels like a showcase for its outdoor locations, like when John has a clandestine meeting with Jimmy. In Spieler’s version, John and Jimmy’s hilariously drawn-out conversation mostly serves to highlight the surrounding boardwalk and Manhattan skyline.

It’s hard to assign meaning or creative intent to a movie that was only assembled decades after its original conception, but Vinegar Syndrome’s camp-worshipping target audience might still find that “New York Ninja” features just enough gonzo character and DIY chutzpah.

“New York Ninja” began a national rollout in U.S. theaters Monday.

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