New York Ninja (2021)

Rating: *
Review Date: 3/30/22
Cast: John Liu

Young women in New York are being kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by an entity known as The Plutonium Killer. When John Liu's pregnant wife is killed after witnessing a kidnapping, Liu grabs a sword, puts on his pajamas, and vows revenge. Taking to the streets, John beats up thugs and tracks down his wife's killer with the help of his TV reporter friends. He becomes a media sensation and is dubbed the "New York Ninja," which is also inscribed on the shuriken that he throws. He forms a tenuous alliance with Interpol and the local police to take down The Plutonium Killer, but they also plan to arrest him for his violent vigilante actions. Fortunately, a group of children are inspired by New York Ninja's bravado and become ninja themselves, fighting back against bullies and injustice, and ultimately helping John escape the law.

Yes, it's a terrible film, but the story behind it is fascinating and I truly admire the work that went into it. In 1984, veteran kung fu actor John Liu went to New York to make a contemporary action film in the vein of Sho Kosugi's ninja movies. The project was never completed, and somehow Vinegar Syndrome ended up with the raw footage thirty-five years later. They decided to assemble the film to the best of their abilities, even though they had no story or sound elements. John Liu wasn't available or willing to help with the project, so the team at Vinegar Syndrome had to make up their own plot based on the material they had. They brought in veteran actors of the era to dub the film, including Don "The Dragon" Wilson, Linnea Quigley, Cynthia Rothrock, Ginger Lynn, and Michael Berryman. They also had a band called Voyag3r compose a stellar retro soundtrack that really captures the sound and spirit of the 80's. It was truly a labor of love and the end result is quite remarkable. Naturally, there are gaps and much of the film doesn't make any sense at all, which reflects the era and the genre, and gives the movie some nostalgic charm.

Getting back to the film as it was originally shot, it really was a disaster. John Liu is by far the best actor in the film (which says a lot about the rest of the cast), and easily the most talented. He uses his signature kicking skills to good effect, but the American stunt performers are so poor that Liu has to slow down and work at their level. As a result, the action scenes are extremely weak and Liu's performance suffers. Adding insult to injury, Liu is also heavily doubled in many of the ninja scenes by stuntmen who look NOTHING like him. There are scenes of New York Ninja fighting on roller skates, which are completely absurd and clearly not performed by Liu. Some of the sword fights and gymnastics are also obviously doubled. Adding children to the mix is almost always cinematic poison, and this film is no exception. And then there's The Plutonium Killer, who is utterly baffling and totally ridiculous. It's unclear what's going on with him and his mysterious glowing box, and I'm sure that was the most challenging aspect for Vinegar Syndrome to deal with. Those scenes look like they belong in a totally different movie. There are numerous reasons why "New York Ninja" should have never been made, but as a study in film restoration, it's a fantastic piece of work as well as a rare time capsule of 1980's action cinema.