In 1984, a B level martial arts actor from Taiwan named John Liu, who had starred in a handful of movies in the late 70s for Ng See-yuen, working with choreographers like Yuen Woo-ping and Corey Yuen, directed and starred in a no-budget action film called New York Ninja. The film was never finished: the production company went bankrupt and the film sat in storage for decades without a finished cut, script, or soundtrack. And then the video label Vinegar Syndrome, specialists in the misbegotten genre films of yesteryear, got their hands on the material and commissioned a reconstruction. Kurtis M. Spieler handled the “re-direction” along with the editing, while a cast of 80s luminaries (including Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Ginger Lynn, and Cynthia Rothrock) recorded all new dialogue. The result is a loving recreation of a bit of 1980s ephemera, though not a good movie by any means.
Liu plays the sound tech guy on the three person remote news team (a cameraman and a woman reporter round out the crew) who disguises himself as a ninja to beat up the masked gangs who terrorize New York after one of them murders his pregnant wife. The gangs (or gang, it’s unclear if they’re all connected or a bunch of different groups) kidnap women on behalf of a mysterious guy in dark glasses known as the Plutonium Killer, who for some reason tortures some of the women and sells the others to an English guy who may or may not be an undercover Interpol agent. The basic pattern is: gang wanders through the streets terrorizing people (often with the reporters looking on a filming while saying “why that’s just awful, someone should do something!”); Ninja shows up all dressed in white (the color of death); each gang member attacks him one at a time while he kicks them or stabs them or throws something at them; then the Ninja runs away.
None of this makes the least bit of sense, but in a more or less fun kind of way. I’m always wary of this kind of manufactured cult classic, there’s a tone of condescension to a lot of “so bad it’s good” discourse that I simply find distasteful. But New York Ninja avoids a lot of that simply by the sheer effort involved in its recreation. I can’t imagine anyone would put so much work into a project like this if there wasn’t a lot of sincere love for the genuine “putting on a show” indie spirit of making a DIY martial arts movie. At it’s best, the movie is a time capsule of a lost age: the shots of the pre-gentrified Broadway area (including the heart of the grindhouse movie district where so many movies like this (and many many significantly better ones) got their own theatrical releases in the US), as well as old fashions and hairstyles and cars (including the beautiful destruction of a what appears to be a 1970 Buick LeSabre, the first car I ever owned), all shot on film, which even in this debased form still has more life and character than most every digital production today. It’s not the avant-garde semi-masterpiece that is the just as no-budget 1984 karate film Furious, but it is still a genuinely weird movie.
I only wish the action was better. Liu was supposedly one of the great movie kickers of the late 70s, and you can see hints of that here. But the fight scenes are so deathly slow. None of the movements are connected: Liu kicks someone and they stand there, one beat, two beats, and then they punch him, pause pause, he kicks them again. I haven’t watched many American martial arts movies–I had an uncle who was into Chuck Norris so I watched some of his Vietnam POW movies, but I missed the whole 80s ninja craze–but I can’t imagine they were this slow. And I know for a fact action like this would never have seen the light of day in even in the cheapest Taiwanese or Hong Kong kung fu film of the era. So I wonder if this is a by-product of the (re-)editing process, that Liu had intended more cutting (to close-ups or different angles or just jump cuts within the same shots) to make the fights seem faster and more dynamic than they are, but either the materials weren’t available or they weren’t ever shot or the reconstruction team for some reason just didn’t use them. My fear is that they left them this way because they think it’s funnier, but I hope that’s not the case.