In 2019 I celebrated “Ninjanuary” with several posts about the ninja in popular culture, particularly in films and books from the 1980s. I’m bringing it back this year with a few more ninja-themed reviews; past entries can be found by clicking on the Ninjanuary tag.
New York, New York. The time is summer 1984. Uptown, Ghostbusters fever has taken hold: the four intrepid ghost hunters are enjoying a burst of popularity, with crowds of fans wearing tee shirts emblazoned with the iconic “no ghosts” barred circle. But downtown, another folk hero has taken the public and their shirts by storm, a low-tech, singlehanded war on crime, a white-clad master of martial arts who goes only by the moniker “New York Ninja.” The city needs a hero, as New York in 1984 is deep in the “war zone” years, terrorized by outlandish criminal gangs and a wave of abductions in broad daylight. So how come the Ghostbusters got all the publicity and the New York Ninja remained unknown until last year, and how is it that a film as crazy as New York Ninja didn’t have a cult following?
Like Ninja Busters, New York Ninja was a lost film, but while Ninja Busters was completed and then shelved before its rediscovery, New York Ninja was never finished. Budget problems closed down the production, and after its abandonment it would have stayed unknown had the film reels not come into the possession of boutique video label Vinegar Syndrome. Under the guidance of Kurt Spieler, credited as “re-director,” the film was not so much restored as reconstructed: not only was the original shooting script lost, but so were the audio elements. Much could be gleaned from reading the actors’ lips in the surviving footage, but it was impossible to say how much had remained unfilmed or to say with certainty how the scenes were to line up. (Original star/director John Liu, a Taiwanese veteran of the Hong Kong film industry, is still alive, but has left show business and declined to be involved with the reconstruction effort.) Building a story up from the extant footage and guesswork, Spieler and his crew created a new soundtrack with dubbed voices (provided by a number of genre stalwarts including Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Linnea Quigley, and Cynthia Rothrock) and an original ‘80s-style score by the band Voyag3r; there’s even an end-credits rap. You can take it at face value as a martial-arts/exploitation film, of course, but there’s also a fascinating metatextual element that places it somewhere between The Creeping Terror and Shirkers.
So, how is the movie? Well, it’s, uh, really something. After an onscreen text that lays out the dire state of the city, it begins with John (John Liu, voiced by Wilson, playing a character named . . . John Liu) and his wife Nita preparing to celebrate John’s birthday, but Nita can’t wait to tell him the good news: she’s pregnant. In the next scene Nita witnesses a woman being abducted by three gangsters, and in true ‘80s revenge thriller style, she is swiftly and brutally killed so she doesn’t talk (the ubiquitous “I ♥ NY” bumper sticker is placed for maximum irony). After briefly wallowing in grief and getting nowhere with the police, John (whose day job is sound man for a TV news crew) takes it upon himself to clean up the streets. Cue training montage!
Soon, the New York Ninja is a sensation, thanks to video recorded by tourists and the news crew (who, in classic secret identity fashion, don’t suspect John of being the ninja). John beats up a lot of central-casting gang members and tweakers, many of them wearing clear plastic masks (someone had access to a vacuform machine). They’re the kind of multi-ethnic gangs beloved of filmmakers, with costumes somewhere between The Warriors and Mad Max (the masks appear to be a design choice rather than a gang uniform). Liu’s specialty was high kicking, so plenty of these bad guys turn out to be highly kickable. Other stunts include leaping up and down from walls or ledges, and in one scene John allows himself to be pulled behind a moving car and climbs in the trunk while it’s still in motion. In some of these scenes the change of camera speed is obvious, but charmingly so (the climactic scene in which he hangs from a helicopter in the air appears to be real; I’m not sure how else you would accomplish such a shot). All of the outdoor scenes were filmed guerilla-style, with at best the permission of property owners, but this isn’t the kind of production that can close down Times Square to get the perfect shot; the atmosphere is still highly stylized, but at least somewhat grounded.
There’s a subplot with a street kid John takes in, who organizes the other kids into ninja units, and in a couple of scenes the kid gang misdirects the bad guys and the cops. The slapstick elements of the kids’ scenes are at odds with the serious gunplay and violence the bad guys are willing to use in other contexts, but that’s nothing compared to the jarring scenes of the lead villain: the women who are abducted are pressed into a prostitution ring masterminded by a disfigured ex-CIA operative (voiced by Michael Berryman) who wears dark glasses to protect himself from the light. The victims he keeps for himself turn up dead and covered in radiation burns, causing the newspapers to dub him the “Plutonium Killer” (as a fan of newspaper headlines to convey exposition, there are some great ones in this). The scenes of him—communing?—recharging?—with a glowing green box are off-the-charts nuts, with the Plutonium Killer mugging and hooting like Bruce Campbell in a Sam Raimi picture while his skin falls off. (He even uses the Three Stooges eye-poke as a go-to move.) Obviously, this guy and the New York Ninja are on a collision course with a big confrontation at the end, but it’s so out there that it’s hard to believe it occupies the same universe as the scenes where children scare off gun-wielding thugs by throwing eggshells full of powder at them.
But that’s the ‘80s for you. It’s possible that the film, if completed as intended, would have reconciled its tonal contradictions, but I doubt it, and it wouldn’t necessarily be better that way. The plot of New York Ninja most resembles Revenge of the Ninja with a solid helping of Death Wish, but its “you gotta see this” elements may remind viewers of another competing film from the heights (or depths) of the ninja craze. Big banners for Ninja III: The Domination can be seen over a 42nd Street movie theater in one scene; perhaps New York Ninja halted production because they realized they couldn’t match that film’s absurdity. But they sure tried.