Color, 2021, 93 mins. 17 secs.
Directed by John Liu, Kurtis M. Spieler
Starring John Liu, Adrienne Meltzer, and the voices of Don "The Dragon" Wilson, Cynthia Rothrock, Leon Isaac Kennedy, Linnea Quigley, Michael Berryman, Ginger Lynn, Darius Churchman, Wayne Grayson
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
If the sight of a ninja on roller skates fighting crime while whizzing through the scuzzy streets of 1984 New York City doesn't make your heart sing, there's something very wrong with you. That's just one of the many joys to be found in New York Ninja, a very low-budget ode to action films (particularly of the Cannon variety) crafted by and starring John Liu, a Taiwanese martial artist and actor (seen in films like Dragon Blood and Secret Rivals) who abandoned the seemingly impossible project after shooting and left its film material (minus sound elements) languishing in a vault while he vanished for good to Vietnam.
As the opening text informs us, mid-'80s NYC is besieged by crime with little relief offered by ineffective law enforcement. We quickly see that in action when John (Liu) spends a happy lunch break moment outdoors with his wife who informs him she's pregnant, sending him into fits of giddiness. Unfortunately she's murdered moments later when she stumbles into the middle of gang activity, leaving her tumbling down a subway entrance with a knife in her abdomen. Tormented by grief, John is essentially told he's out of luck by the police-- which is enough for his secret life as a skilled ninja to come in handy when he pulls out his sword and prepares for battle. Thus is born the New York Ninja, an anonymous crime fighter with a dogged two-person news crew led by reporter Randi (Meltzer) trying to catch him in action around town. John actually works for the same news team as a sound guy, which leads to lots of Clark Kent-inspired shenanigans with him suddenly disappearing when the good stuff happens. Meanwhile gang activity tied to a human trafficking ring is still on the rise, and it's all tied to the Plutonium Killer-- a crime lord affected by exposure to a glowing briefcase straight out of Kiss Me Deadly (or Repo Man, if you prefer). With his branded throwing stars and citizens wearing "I Love New York Ninja" paraphernalia with two cops and an Interpol agent try to work together, our hero seems like the only hope to clean up the streets once and for all... if he lives long enough.
Nonstop fun from start to finish, New York Ninja is one of those treasures you can't believe was almost deprived from the world. There's no way this could be recreated today, with the priceless shots of Reagan-era Manhattan putting this is in solid company with the wave of action and horror movies that turned an entire generation of kids into lifelong movie junkies thanks to cable TV and VHS. You get location footage galore all over town, not to mention loads of great ads from the time ranging from Broadway's La Cage aux Folles to Ninja III: The Domination. The plot itself is one of those "just go with it" deals, especially when it comes to our villain (voiced by Michael Berryman) with a random grab bag of government-honed skills including mesmerism. The whole project was a labor of love for Kurtis M. Spieler, who came up with the idea of transforming the reels of unedited camera negative footage into a finished feature with a voice cast consisting of prime names from the decade including Don "The Dragon" Wilson as John, plus Cynthia Rothrock, Linnea Quigley, a very briefly heard Ginger Lynn, and Leon Isaac Kennedy. Thankfully they don't try to yuck up the vocal delivery or script here; it's played as straight as any standard '80s action film, which of course makes it far more enjoyable and free from the self-conscious pandering that's hampered too many other nostalgia-baiting productions. There's also a fine electronic score by Voyag3r that sounds true to the era as well, especially if you're a Cannon fan. On top of that it's just purely entertaining with tons of action scenes and a truly nutso final 20 minutes you have to see to believe.
Featuring gorgeous packaging, the two-disc Blu-ray set from Vinegar Syndrome looks gorgeous. That shouldn't be surprising since it's sourced from a 4K scan from an edit made straight off the camera negative, and it's a flawless presentation all the way. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 track sounds great with the music getting most of the channel separation here;presumably for sheer VHSnostalgia value, there's also a mono track created from a mix dumped to 1/4" analog tape for a real old school experience. Optional English SDH subtitles are also included, of course. The film can also be played with a brief 2m2s video intro by Spieler, who also provides a very detailed audio commentary laying out the film's history, the story of the discovery of the camera rolls, the voice casting, and tons more detailing the two-year process of bringing this to life. Also included on disc one is "Re-Enter the New York Ninja" (48m44s), a sprawling Michael Gingold doc about the film's decades-long path to completion and release featuring Spieler, Meltzer, Wilson, Rothrock, Berryman, producer Arthur Schweitzer, editor Jim Markovic, makeup effects creator Carl Morano, and Vinegar Syndrome's Ryan Emerson, Ralph Stevens, Brandon Upson and Brad Henderson. It actually feels a bit like multiple featurettes wedged together, as the first 13 minutes consists of a handy back and forth between authors Chris Poggiali and Grady Hendrix about Liu's movie background and contrasting martial arts styles, which nicely lays the groundwork for what's the come. Finally the disc rounds out with the 2021 theatrical trailer.
On we go to disc two, which starts off with "Re-Directing New York Ninja" (18m33s) with Spieler elaborating on the process of essentially "directing" a new film with a script fabricated through a combination of guessing, lip reading, and sheer ingenuity, culled from sorting all the different shots and figuring out how it might all tie together without an existing script or other useful paperwork. In "The Music of New York Ninja" (10m43s), Voyag3r members Steve Greene, Aaron Greene, and Greg Mastin chat about the impact of ninjas on their upbringing and the thrill of getting to score a bona fide '80s ninja movie, even with the pandemic throwing a wrench in the process of pulling it off. Gingold steps in front of the camera for "Locations Unmasked" (13m59s), which starts off at the headquarters of 21st Century Distribution (who was initially involved in the project) and then heads through a number of familiar spots then and now around the city. A lengthy reel of silent, full aperture deleted scenes (26m59s) features Spieler commenting on why they didn't make the final cut, complete with a look at some fun showdowns and other bits of madness preserved here for posterity. There's also more of those crazy characters seen in the rap-fueled end credits, too, in case you were wondering. If that isn't enough unseen goodness, there's also an outtake and b-roll montage (10m18s) with some other celluloid odds and ends (More street dragging! More helicopter!), followed by a vintage VHS sizzle reel (9m27s) designed to raise funds for the feature and a 4m23s gallery of great candid production photos. Finally the set comes with a hefty insert booklet, "A Tale of Two Ninjas: The Story of How New York Ninja Came To Be," a more personal take by Spieler about how his hiring at Vinegar Syndrome led to the little action movie miracle we now have in our hands.
Reviewed on October 31, 2021