When travelling, it is often the longest route that provides the most interesting journey. Such is the case with martial arts movie New York Ninja which is finally seeing the light of day after 37 years thanks to the efforts of film preservation studio Vinegar Syndrome. They have crafted a thoroughly entertaining, high-definition motion picture from raw footage, no audio, and no script. The latter two of these they had to provide themselves in a tale that’s as barmy as the film itself and has to be heard to be believed.
New York Ninja stars martial arts legend John Liu as the titular vigilante who is hunting down the gang responsible for killing his pregnant girlfriend. This gang is also behind a slate of female kidnappings and is led by The Plutonium Killer, who regularly exposes himself to the chemical in order to survive. It’s a simple story, embellished by the absurdities within, although it isn’t as much a story as it is a reason to move from one fight scene to the next. Liu demonstrates impressive kicks and astounding flips throughout the 92-minute runtime, with his opponents acting as mere puppets to be demonstrated upon. His feats are truly stunning and matched in entertainment value by the costumes.
The 1980s were an interesting time for fashion, with big shoulder pads and even bigger hair. These are present in New York Ninja, but the most fascinating clothing choices are made by the villains who would fit right into a low-budget pantomime. It’s a style that can only be described as “mismatched Halloween costumes” but the choices are to be laughed with instead of laughed at. Equally commendable are the special effects, which appear rarely but make an impact whenever they do. This particular era of filmmaking was home to fake-looking effects that only needed to get the notion of gore across on-screen and it’s immensely charming. The blood has a paint-like quality but the prosthetics are genuinely brilliant, especially where faces are involved.
With no surviving audio or script, both had to be provided by the restoration team, which is a difficult task, especially when the ADR has to fit over pre-existing mouth movements. The team solved this by only matching when required, and considering the average quality of ADR work in mid-tier production movies at the time, it feels more like an homage than it does a necessary choice. It’s not an award-winning script either, but the voice actors are delivering lines with all the campness required. There are stretches with very little dialogue outside of grunts and it’s in these moments the score is allowed to shine. Composed by Detroit-based band Voyag3r, the score is written specifically for the film and oozes 1980s excitement. It’s as much a work of art as the film and equally worth checking out on its own.
The DVD release will feature the 50-minute documentary Re-Enter The New York Ninja which features interviews with both original and new crew members. It’s a bizarre tale of guerrilla filmmaking, studio dismissal, and surprising secrecy which details the importance of preserving media.
Vinegar Syndrome’s mission is an admirable one. Many may see New York Ninja as just another martial arts movie but, due to its complicated history, it is so much more than that. It is a testament to those who salvaged it and to all those who salvage the media of the past. It saved the inspirational 1927 sci-fi classic Metropolis and 79 episodes of the original run of Doctor Who. Saved pieces like this are a love letter to those original artists, credited or not. New York Ninja does not list those who worked on the original production because the restoration team could find no names to list but hopefully, they hear about their rescued project and seek it out. Hopefully, they’re proud of their work and the added work of Vinegar Syndrome because they should be. They’ve helped create a campy, violent work of art.
Until Next Time…