NEW YORK NINJA, which had its world premiere at Beyond Fest earlier this month, is a b-action miracle: a previously unknown and unfinished vigilante ninja vs. street punks film accidentally discovered by just the right people who would know how to treat it like a lost Orson Welles film. Shot but abandoned before completion in 1984, it was an American production starring and directed by Taiwanese-born martial arts star John Liu (SECRET RIVALS, SNUFF BOTTLE CONNECTION).
Luckily, the footage happened to be included in a library acquired by Vinegar Syndrome, the excellent blu-ray label that started out restoring vintage porn movies before becoming one of the premiere curators of cult horror and action (PENITENTIARY I & II, DOLEMITE, MARTIAL LAW I & II, THE BEASTMASTER). According to Re-Enter the New York Ninja, a 48-minute featurette that will be included on physical releases of the movie, when they asked what the reels were they were told they could throw them out if they wanted. Instead they watched them and found a movie you can imagine the company acquiring intentionally, had it previously existed: a pulpy, somewhat campy but very sincere revenge movie with Liu battling cartoonish gangs and a mutated serial killer on the streets of New York (sometimes with noticeably unsuspecting extras).
But many of the scenes were unfinished, and the soundtrack was entirely gone. So they scanned all the film, edited in the order it was numbered, then reshaped it into a form they could make sense of. New dialogue was written and recorded with a cast including Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Cynthia Rothrock, Linnea Quigley, Ginger Lynn Allen, Michael Berryman and Leon Isaac Kennedy (!), and the band VOYAG3R created a great synth/drums/guitar score. While not running from the fact that much of the content is goofy, this all done straight and sincere, even in two melodramatic scenes where he yells “WHY?!!?” about his murdered wife.
So NEW YORK NINJA was reborn from the ashes.
It seems incredible to me that a movie like this would 1) exist and 2) be discovered and rescued in this manner, but it’s even more miraculous from my perspective because a few years ago I became obsessed with the very obscure directorial works of Liu after renting a VHS tape titled AVENGING NINJA. It, too seems unfinished (he’s on a mission to save his kidnapped father, but gets distracted and never finds him), and yet they released it. I was fascinated partly because he plays himself in the movie, is supposedly a graduate of Washington State University (not true, as far as I can tell) and shamelessly promotes his Zen Kwan Do martial arts school (that part is real). So I watched what at the time were thought to be the only other movies he directed, NINJA IN THE CLAWS OF THE C.I.A. and DRAGON BLOOD, both interesting in their own ways, both starring John Liu as John Liu (even though the third one is a period piece).
I spent a long time on those reviews (cutting myself off when I was about to order vintage martial arts magazines on ebay for research) and then sat on them for a while because I doubted anyone would be as excited about a guy they never heard of whose movies they probly wouldn’t be able to find. So imagine my shock when I saw the trailer for this!
Liu once again plays John Liu, this time not a film star, but a humble soundman for a NYC news crew. After his pregnant wife is murdered on the street for witnessing an abduction, he becomes frustrated with police inaction and starts dressing up in an off white ninja outfit to wage war on the rampaging muggers, rapists and kidnappers who terrorize the city.
I love cataloging the different fashion items these thugs put together to represent their status as Street Tuffs: spiked collars and wristbands, leather jackets, berets, Adidas track suits, handkerchief headbands, camouflage pants, ski goggles, face paint, Halloween masks, nylons over faces, checkered painter’s caps, muscle shirts, knee pads and jock straps over jeans, a samurai helmet, cowboy hats, a black trenchcoat with a military braid and a Van Halen patch on the same shoulder, but also a surprising amount of comfy-looking sweaters and winter gloves and hats. There’s a pair of security guys at the abducted-woman-warehouse who carry bullwhips; one is a leather daddy with an eyepatch and the other sports a nice red pants/white cable knit sweater/baby blue ski mask/green visor ensemble. Another scene has a guy who looks like a traditional biker except for the addition of green tanning booth goggles
These are adult men with nunchakas in their back pockets who pin a little boy to a wall to demand money. John later rescues the boy and agrees to be his friend, inspiring the boy to lead an army of child ninjas who successfully stand up to the punks.
John does flips off of chain link fences, kills people with swords, blowdarts and (poisoned?) throwing stars emblazoned with “N.Y. NINJA” (that would’ve been a great promo item), throws chalk in people’s eyes, does tons of Liu’s trademark high kicks. In on scene he rollerskates in the ninja garb – he doesn’t seem as agile on skates, honestly, but it’s a cool idea. He’s also dragged from a moving car and a flying helicopter. “The Ninja” is often filmed by his own crew (he does a Clark Kent routine to explain his absence) and becomes a local folk hero complete with t-shirts, like Billie Jean or The Toxic Avenger.
When the crew come across some punks smashing a parked car with crowbars and bats, cameraman Jack stops to film and doesn’t listen to reporter Randi that it’s his car until they’re rolling it upside down. Then he tries to intervene and they kidnap Randi. The shadowy ringleader, introduced as mysterious leather-gloved hands in the back of a Cadillac firing a sewing needle out of a pen into a fly, parks next to another car whose occupant sips champagne while browsing photos of women he may purchase for his “clients.” The fly-impaler also moonlights as “The Plutonium Killer,” who gets off on opening a container of radioactive materials (he makes orgasmic faces and moans as it melts his skin) and using the heat to burn his hypnotized abductees. Also he has a driver/bodyguard who enjoys fencing, drunken sword style, and compulsively sucking on his long braid (the credits call him “Rat Tail”).
Movies this pulpy can be fun in any cheap ass form, but the fact that much of it was filmed on location in 1984 New York City gives it production value and makes it a great time capsule. There are scenes filmed on crowded 42nd Street sidewalks at night, so you see marquees for Cats and La Cage aux folles, and a theater showing a bunch of kung fu movies (RAGING MASTER, TIGER CRANE, KUNG FU WARRIORS) with a full banner for NINJA III: THE DOMINATION. There’s a scene filmed at a real Halloween parade (I spotted a kid in a Masters of the Universe Beast Man costume). But most of it is actually filmed in broad daylight, which is cool since you’d normally see these heightened WARRIORS-esque villains in dark alleys next to flaming oil barrels.
At least in its current form, one of the only John Liu traditions the film continues is him using his own name. But he doesn’t mention Zen Kwan Do and does not meet various sex partners, as in his other films. Usually he at least gets seduced and drugged by random hotties. (He does reject a flirtatious visit from a friend consoling him about his wife’s death.) And I didn’t notice his usual co-star Roger Paschy being in it. One thing that’s cool within the body of work is that he actually is playing a ninja this time. Two of his other three movies were marketed as ninja movies in the U.S. but feature no ninja-related content.
So far there’s no way to know what Liu (who reportedly lives with no phone in a shack in Vietnam, and gave his blessing but no participation) would think of the movie in its current form. With Vinegar Syndrome’s pristine restoration and the way they put it together (with Kurtis Spieler credited as new co-director), it looks much better and makes much more sense than Liu’s other films. And VOYAG3R’s soundtrack, while faithful to the time period, is likely stronger than what Liu would’ve had access to. (There’s also an end credits title song from rap pioneer Bronx Style Bob that does seem to have been made for the movie at the time.) Crucially, they did a really good job with the dubbing, which sounds very legit for those of us versed in dubbed Hong Kong or Italian movies of the ‘70s or ‘80s. They’re never making a joke out of it, and I thought it was easy to forget whose voices they were and not be distracted.
This seems like a really good movie to see with an audience (save for an uncomfortable scene of violence against women) – I’m sure it played well at Beyond Fest, and maybe it will get some other chances, if the fuckin pandemic ever allows it. But whether in theaters or the eventual VOD and blu-ray releases, it’s guaranteed to find a larger and more appreciative audience than Liu’s earlier films were ever afforded. And that’s a beautiful thing.
P.S. One tidbit in the documentary is that Rudy Ray Moore had at one point been cast in the movie. That would’ve been amazing, though also a challenge if they’d had to dub him for this.