Sunday, October 03, 2021

New York Ninja: The Return of John Liu

When Taiwanese-born martial arts star John Liu started filming his first American production, it captured the violent grittiness of early 1980s New York. It was roughly thirty-seven years before that film finally screened for audiences, but ironically, it currently feels just as representative of the lawless city, as it did then. We need his masked martial arts avenger now, more than ever. Fortunately, the new rights-holders at Vinnegar Syndrome restored and re-edited the unseen footage, recording an entirely new audio track. It might not exactly match Liu’s original vision, but he still cleans up the big apple in the re-conceived New York Ninja, now credited to directors Liu and Kurtis Spieler, which had its world premiere at this year’s Beyond Fest.

No scripts or records of any kind survived after the production was halted, apparently due to conflicts with the production company. All that was left was a pallet of film cans. However, what Spieler and his associates saw in there still had value to cult film fans, especially Liu’s signature high kicks and the street-level scenes of New York, in which viewers can often see the World Trade Center as Liu’s characters practices his moves along the waterfront.

The story, as re-written and re-edited by Speiler, follows John, a mild-mannered news crew sound tech, who happens to be highly skilled in the martial arts. Tragically, his pregnant wife is murdered by a gang of human traffickers when she witnesses the abduction of their latest victim. Enraged by his grief, John dons the white garb of a good ninja to do the dirty work the cops just won’t do. Soon, he breaks up enough of their kidnappings attempts to get the attention of the gang’s radiation-mutated boss, now known as the Plutonium Killer.

The acting and production values of
NY Ninja are not that different from what can be seen in Y.K. Kim’s The Miami Connection, but Liu’s high-kicking skills are still impressive. It is also cool to watch time-capsule-like footage of New York, including pre-Giuliani Times Square (where we see Ninja III: The Domination is playing—one of the hit Cannon Ninja films NY Ninja was clearly trying to cash-in on). If you check out NY Ninja for the right reasons, you should have fun, but if you are looking for sensitive drama and finely turned performances than maybe not so much.

Shrewdly, Spieler recruited a who’s who of genre favorites for the voice ensemble, starting with Don “The Dragon” Wilson, perfectly cast as John. Likewise, his old pal Cynthia Rothrock fittingly gives voice to the martial arts proficient cop, who gets kidnapped by the traffickers. For 1980s action fans, it is a real treat to hear
Penitentiary’s Leon Isaac Kennedy dubbing her detective colleague, who has been investigating the abductions (his last prior credit goes back a ways). Michael Berryman nicely suits the weirdness of the Plutonium Killer, while Linnea Quigley is so good as TV reporter Randi Rydell, the original actress, Adrienne Meltzer (one of the few identified cast-members) thought her audio had survived.

Indeed, Meltzer proves to be a good sport in the interview segments she recorded for Michael Gingold’s
Re-Enter the New York Ninja, the behind-the-scenes re-making-of featurette that screened with Ninja at Beyond Fest and will be incorporated in the film’s eventual physical release. Gingold’s experts provide a lot of useful background and context on Liu’s career. At the time, he really was a Kung Fu connoisseur’s favorite, so Ninja might have found a small but appreciative audience had it been released at the time. Instead, Liu went completely off the grid and his film was entirely forgotten, until now. It is a shame, because it obviously had a deranged spirit that plays well around midnight.

It might have been a crazy low-budget operation, but a lot of effort still went into
New York Ninja, so it is nice to see it finally get some attention. Despite its limitations, NY Ninja is far superior to Miami Connection and Liu himself is probably due for a resurgence of genre fan interest. At the very least, the film scratches your 1980s action nostalgia itch. Recommended for what it is (and what it might have been), New York Ninja has risen from movie purgatory, following its world premiere last night at Beyond Fest.