Vinegar Syndrome Unearths a Soon to be Cult Classic
For a group of killers that was supposed to remain in the shadows, ninjas were EVERYWHERE in the 80s. The stealthy Japanese assassins, usually regulated to C/D level action flicks, somehow made their way into the mainstream consciousness and were ubiquitous in the pop-culture landscape. More movies, cartoons, toys and video games were being produced in this period than you could shake a razor sharp Katana at.
New York Ninja appears to be a lost entry into the final wave of films that was recently unearthed by the folks at Vinegar Syndrome. The film was completely shot and directed by Taiwanese action star John Liu (The Secret Rivals, Invincible Armor) in 1984, who after the completion of the film mysteriously retired from show business and never completed the project. Now, 37 years later Vinegar Syndrome has acquired the original unedited camera negative and director Kurtis Spieler was tasked with finishing the film and recording a new dub track to replace lost sound elements. Casting such genre mainstays such as Don “The Dragon” Wilson (Bloodfist, Whatever it Takes), Linnea Quigley (Return of the Living Dead, Nightmare Sisters), Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes, Auntie Lee’s Meat Pies) and Cynthia Rothrock (China O’Brien, Martial Law) the voice talent alone cemented the project as one of my most anticipated when it was announced earlier this year.
Transpiring on the gritty post apocalyptic streets of early 80s New York, New York Ninja has a rash of female kidnappings plaguing the city that never sleeps, which are tied to the white slave trade. When John’s (John Liu) pregnant wife gets mixed up with one of these abductions and gets killed, the unassuming news sound technician is forced to deal out his own brand of justice in a ninja outfit that looks like it was cobbled together from the thrift store. That being said, John’s kung-fu is impressive as he takes out any bad guy that crosses his path, while winning legions of fans in the process becoming a bonafide media celebrity. This plot thread runs concurrently with another even more absurd one about the “Plutonium Killer”, who is also targeting young women and is somehow related to the aformentioned prostitution ring. The film is a bizarre mix of 80’s Troma, Akira and The Warriors all channeled through Miami Connection, in a film that’s absurdity is only matched by its sincerity.
There’s a choice made early on in the film that made me very thankful the folks at Vinegar Syndrome ended up with the project. The film is approached non-ironically and the dub and post-direction/editing here are done with an empathy for the project rather than looking down on the film and exploiting its shortcomings. This allows the intended sincerity of the filmmaker and the truth of the performances to come through as John fights his way to the top. It’s easy to see John’s strengths as a martial artist on screen, that paired with his performance are almost enough to carry the film, which could have served as a calling card for the young martial artist, if it had been finished. This plays out through the lens of the kind of guerilla filmmaking that was reminiscent of Italian exploitation, delivering an apocalyptic snapshot of the chaotic city in a much different time.
While some may want to experience New York Ninja ironically to simply bask in its naivety, Vinegar Syndrome has made sure to imbue it with its intended more earnest take for those looking for something a bit more. The new dub/soundtrack takes a Italian dub style approach that has the film feeling akin to something like 1990: The Bronx Warriors. It’s a good balance that doesn’t distract too much from the overall presentation and makes this contemporary dub feel more seamless than expected. Overall I was suprised not only with the film’s DIY production, but its sheer heart, since this project was obviously a labor of love for all involved and it’s great that it’s finally seeing the light of day. New York Ninja is an instant cult classic with its larger than life swings and amateur performances that sometimes manage to reach the ambitious heights of its almost otherworldly narrative.