Review By: Jonathan W. Hickman
"New York Ninja" isn't a good movie. In fact, it's a laughably bad one. And it's all intentional.
In 1984, Taiwanese martial arts legend John Liu wrote, directed, and starred in "New York Ninja." The film follows John, a television sound man, who transforms into the title ninja after the murder of his pregnant wife. Taking to the streets following a breakdown, John dons the white uniform and takes on bad guys, including a former secret agent, whose strange power and weird sexual proclivities are linked to his continuing exposure to plutonium.
While the film was shot guerilla-style on the city's streets, the movie was left unfinished when the now reclusive legend, who once fought Chuck Norris and was acquainted with Bruce Lee, retired from the business. But when the folks at Vinegar Syndrome found the old footage, they did something unthinkable and wonderfully extraordinary: They digitized the discovered reels into the highest quality and finished Liu's work.
The result is something of a campy, nostalgic masterpiece. Not because of the narrative value of the project, but because it acts as an unusual time capsule preserved through the magic of film.
Under the direction of filmmaker Kurtis Spieler (see 2018's "The Devil's Well"), this thought-to-be-lost martial arts fantasy was reedited. And because no original audio was available, Spieler not only had to find the story, he also had to give it a voice. The dialogue is recreated by a host of vintage voice talent, including Don "The Dragon" Wilson voicing the lead, Cynthia Rothrock as an undercover police detective and Michael Berryman as the Plutonium Killer.
Spieler and the Vinegar Syndrome team managed to do something remarkable: resurrect a piece of indie filmmaking from the era before the ubiquitous availability of digital filmmaking equipment that arguably democratized the movie business.
Laughs will come as you watch Liu agonize over the loss of his partner and unborn child. Sure, that sounds like it's in bad taste, but the overacting is so extreme that one can only hope that Liu meant it to be ridiculous. And the villains are so incompetent and strange that it is as if Liu was parodying every "Death Wish" sequel that was yet to be released (see "Death Wish 3," in theaters the year after "New York Ninja" was shot, and "Death Wish 4: The Crackdown" in 1987).
But aside from the hearty chuckles associated with the unrealistic, violent nonsense, there's something sweet about the entire endeavor. The camera captures NYC during the reign of Mayor Ed Koch. It was when Times Square was not the family-friendly place we know today. And it is fun and fascinating to pause this movie and read the marquees and business names. By studying the background, the film earns time capsule status offering viewers a campy view of the 1980s.
"New York Ninja" is available on Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD, including deleted scenes and other behind-the-scenes material.