A stack of unedited film reels from the 1980s, devoid of any audio. That was all that remained of the abandoned 1984 project, New York Ninja, before the cult film preservationists from Vinegar Syndrome got their hands on it. Their painstaking effort to edit the unmarked reels into chronological order and enlisting the help of voice actors to dub over the original cast’s lines is nothing short of a preservation miracle. Led by director Kurtis Spieler, the entire team has ensured that audiences finally have a chance to experience the beautiful absurdity of New York Ninja.
New York Ninja is about as subtle and nuanced as an episode of 80s cartoon classic, G.I. Joe. After his wife is mysteriously murdered (with an ‘I Love NY’ sticker in ironic focus), a sound technician for the local television station (voiced by Don “The Dragon” Wilson) transforms into the martial arts vigilante, the New York Ninja. Wearing a cigarette-stained white gi, the street-level superhero glides through the Big Apple of roller skates, punching and slicing every evil-doer he passes. The film essentially is as though Tommy Wiseau directed a rip off of Death Wish. While that may sound like a criticism, it just demonstrates how terrifically cheesy and enjoyable New York Ninja really is.
The film leans even further into its camp sensibility when it introduces its villains. The lead antagonist, The Plutonium Killer (voiced by Michael Berryman), who looks like a caricature version of Dr. Strangelove, is one of the key figures in a city wide sex trafficking ring. While he might use hypnosis to capture his feminine prey (yes, really), his biggest kink is his container of plutonium, which deforms and empowers the villain as the film progresses.
And one can’t discuss The Plutonium Killer without also mentioning his driver/bodyguard, Rattail (voiced by Wayne Grayson). The character’s aggressive tic of chewing on his own rattail and surprising fencing skills makes Rattail one of the best unofficial Bond henchmen to grace the silver screen.
There are a multitude of farcical moments in New York Ninja that it would take me a full essay length feature to describe. However, it’s clear from the dedication of the original production and those behind the restoration, that we are meant to laugh with the film. The only disappointment from New York Ninja is that we will never see what cheesy delights the teased sequel, L.A. Ninja, had in store. But you know what they say in show business: Always leave them wanting more…
The Silver Lining
While New York Ninja is meant to be comical, John Liu’s martial arts choreography is no joke. The action sequences are slowed down dramatically from how these scenes are filmed today. However, the wide, generally unbroken takes showcase the artistry and methodical nature of the choreography. Unlike Hollywood productions, Liu made sure that the action on screen was easy to track while still remaining visually stimulating.
New York Ninja is coming soon to a screen near you.