New York Ninja


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

New York Ninja
"Marvellously entertaining for all the wrong reasons."

They killed his pregnant wife. They assaulted his colleagues. They’re responsible for murder and mayhem on the streets. Now lowly sound technician John (John Liu) has had enough. Clad all in off-white and packing specially engraved throwing stars, he’s ready to deal out his own form of vigilante justice – as the New York Ninja!

If you don’t see the point in watching B-grade films rife with exploitation and paper-thin characterisation, you may as well read no further. If you have ever enjoyed anything of this sort, however, you’ll be gripped from the moment you hear the first notes of Voyag3r’s stunning synthesizer score. They signpost exactly what’s coming and the film never falls short of that initial promise.

If your first thought is that they don’t make ‘em like this anymore, you’re halfway right. This was originally shot on 35mm in 1984 – the only film Liu ever directed in America – before being abandoned and subsequently lost. 35 years later it has been pieced back together by Kurtis Spieler with the help of a voice cast which includes some of the biggest names in Eighties pulp cinema. The result is a labour of love, and that shines out of every scene.

Liu was a martial arts master so his moves are genuinely impressive. He does not, however, seem to have been able to locate anybody with similar skills in the US, so the fight scenes are a hilarious blend of high speed kicks and slightly awkward waits for the US actors to catch up, except where there are too many of them for Liu to fight at once, in which case they stand around trying to look menacing whilst politely waiting their turn.

Female characters are so utterly lacking in physical prowess that at one point we see one of them step aside to let children fight on her behalf. They are constantly victimised, but the numerous scenes of attempted rape are so patently ridiculous that there’s little risk of them causing distress. They’re simply an easy way of signalling villainly; likewise the scenes in which a pimp knocks the women working for him around. Every sex worker looks like a model but in order to fall when struck like that, she would have to be made of cardboard.

We can also recognise villains by their clothing, whether that’s the tracksuits and bandanas of the hood or the smart suits (probably the most expensive thing in the film) and neatly clipped facial hair of the upper class. Oh, and there’s one villain who is radioactive, which is explained in a long winded and not very effective way. He’s also a wax fetishist and a serial killer, which traits are treated as if they’re natural companions in scenes which aim to disgust as much as possible, salacious grunting noises and all.

By contrast, the ninja is the kind of wholesome good guy who can pick up a ten-year-old in the streets and be sitting on a bed with him in the next scene without any alarm bells ringing. Of course the kid idolises this outlaw hero; of course he is inspired to engage in heroics himself, surviving by dint of the unwritten law which at that time said that nothing bad could happen to a kid in an action movie. That and the fact that there’s no need for him to be kidnapped when there are women around for that.

It’s not clear if Vinegar Syndrome, who supervised the restoration work, are producing merchandise to accompany the release, but it’s built into the film in a way that speaks to Liu’s ambition – as if at one point he really thought that the ninja could become an iconic hero. It seems unlikely that Batman and Spider-man will be losing any sleep over the competition, but amongst genre fans, New York Ninja may well attract a cult following. It’s marvellously entertaining for all the wrong reasons – and yet one should not overlook the real craft involved in bringing it back from the dead. For it to have remained lost would have been a tragedy.

Reviewed on: 30 Oct 2021
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A sound technician for a news station becomes a vigilante ninja in New York City after his pregnant wife is murdered.

Director: John Liu, Kurtis Spieler

Starring: John Liu, Michael Berryman, Darius Churchman, Wayne Grayson, Linnea Quigley, Cynthia Rothrock

Year: 2021

Runtime: 93 minutes

Country: US


Abertoir 2021

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