What if you could travel back in time—say, 1984—to the height of the B-action/adventure ninja craze, and re-live just one moment of your misspent youth—a youth spent wandering the aisles of local mom-and-pop video stores (Hometown Video vs. All That Video for my childhood town of 3,000) and depriving yourself of sleep to catch that cheap fever-dream of a flick on cable at 2 a.m.? Or, if you were an adult in 1984, how about reliving those lazy moments of arrested development just one more time? Now you can, because New York Ninja has indeed made time travel possible.
By Jason Hink
Released in 2021 to much fanfare in the semi-underground film scene by Vinegar Syndrome Pictures, New York Ninja is a study in nostalgia and loving resurrection. A film initially shot in 1984 in and around New York City, its elements were discovered in a package of films acquired by Vinegar Syndrome, a genre film restoration company that also serves fans as a boutique label, releasing physical Blu-ray and 4K UHD editions of long-forgotten films, many of which were never released on disc during the heyday of DVD. In the case of New York Ninja, it was a film that was never even finished.
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According to the story, Taiwanese actor and martial artist John Liu, who’d toiled away for years in low-budget action and martial arts films, landed an opportunity to raise his profile by writing and directing an American film that would serve the exploding VHS rental market with another entry in the red-hot ninja craze, which had exploded and was omnipresent in movies, TV and even cartoons (I fondly recall my Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow action figures, prominent ninja characters in G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, a popular syndicated cartoon at the time). No matter where you turned, no matter what story was being told, a ninja or ninja-adjacent character was close by. New York Ninja was to be distributed by 21st Century Distribution Corporation, but just as New York Ninja was set to wrap filming, 21st Century went bankrupt, selling off its assets—which included the canisters of unedited film containing the New York Ninja footage. It’s where the footage would remain, stored away for nobody to see for the next 30-plus years.
Sometime around 2018, Kurtis Spieler joined the team at Vinegar Syndrome and was entranced by the mystique of those film cans with “New York Ninja” scrawled across their labels. He was curious enough to take a peek at the footage and was apparently blown away by what he saw. They reportedly unearthed around 6 to 8 hours of unedited footage—fun, over-the-top, action footage with some spectacular stunt set-pieces. Spieler decided it would be cool to “finish the film.” But there was a problem (actually, multiple problems): Aside from the footage being unedited, there was also no sound. Whatever sound elements that had been recorded were not found with the footage, so the entire soundtrack, including the voices, would have to be recreated from scratch. Adding to the difficulty, no script could be found, either. So Spieler was faced with a guessing game, attempting to read the lips of the on-screen actors and place the scenes in some semblance of a cohesive order, which proved daunting. In the end, Spieler placed his own spin on the narrative, creating a story that may or may not be close to what was intended by original writer/director Liu (an off-the-grid Liu was contacted and, while wishing Spieler and his team good luck, he declined to participate in the project).
With no script to guide the story, Spieler wrote his own. As the very first movie produced by Vinegar Syndrome’s production arm, Spieler and his team utilized their network of actors from productions they’ve worked with over the past decade releasing genre films on disc from the 70s, 80s and 90s. To create the dialogue, Vinegar Syndrome enlisted a Hall of Fame panel of genre- and adult-film veterans to provide the voices, including Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Linnea Quigley, Michael Berryman, Ginger Lynn, Cynthia Rothrock, Leon Isaac Kennedy, Vince Murdocco, and Matt Mitler.
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The finished product is not unlike what you’d expect from renting three or four action movies for weekend viewing in 1984—movies only available at the video store that you’d never expect to see in wide release at the theater. In New York Ninja, nice-guy John (voice of Don “The Dragon” Wilson), a sound technician for a local television news station, is sent off the rails when his pregnant wife Nita (voice of Ginger Lynn) is murdered in the Big Apple. Naturally, the police—including Det. Jimmy Williams (voice of Leon Isaac Kennedy) and Det. Janet Flores (voice of Cynthia Rothrock)—are too busy to deal with these matters as the city is so overrun with crime. So, John does what any TV news sound tech would do: he trains, dons a white ninja outfit, and takes to the streets himself, punishing the bad seeds with the zeal of Bronson in Death Wish 3. Now, with the city falling in love with John, aka the “New York Ninja” (residents begin to wear shirts and buttons emblazoned with “I ❤ NY Ninja”), the criminals of the city turn their sights onto this new crime-fighting vigilante, including the mysterious, vicious kingpin known as the Plutonium Killer (voice of Michael Berryman), whose gang is kidnapping and caging the women of NYC. It’s up to John to stop this evil enterprise, with the assistance of his friends, reporter Randi Rydell (voice of Linnea Quigley) and cameraman Jack (voice of Vince Murdocco).
Had New York Ninja actually been released in 1984 or ’85 as intended, I would’ve seen it at 8 or 9 years old. I suspect I would’ve loved it and enjoyed it as much as all the other fun ’80s cheese I grew up with that I still love today. Along with all the ninja films, think of any number of era-appropriate TV shows (Knight Rider, Riptide, The Fall Guy) or Roger Moore’s ’80s Bond films (especially Octopussy and A View to a Kill) and you get an idea of the vibe of escapist entertainment at the time in which New York Ninja was supposed to be made, and director Spieler goes to great lengths in keeping that vibe intact. (You can look at the sync-loss with those dubbed-in voices as an homage to all those foreign martial arts films that were dubbed into English, though the dubbing here matches up pretty well considering there’s no script or original sound to work with.)
Spieler makes no attempt at intentionally making a “so bad it’s good” experience; instead, he pays tribute to the source material and the era in which it was intended with a straightforward, over-the-top action film that’s funny in the same ways we find any number of Cannon Films productions funny when viewing them today.
The voice work and care that went into the production is a spot-on, a nearly perfect take on what I’d expect to see from a “lost” 1984 ninja movie. Spieler’s choices are perfect, and I wouldn’t change a thing. This includes the soundtrack from the group Voyag3r, a synth/progressive/rock outfit suggested to the team, which has created an era-appropriate score in line with the production’s goals of recreating that 1984 ninja nostalgia.
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Vinegar Syndrome released New York Ninja to theaters in select cities. But for us small-town folk, they released a lavish, special-edition Blu-ray package, marketed as the first “Vinegar Syndrome Pictures” release. Inside the hard case (sealed with a magnetic clasp) is the Blu-ray, itself packaged within its own slipcover (the hard case, slipcover, and Blu-ray insert all feature original art commissioned by Vinegar Syndrome). Also included is A Tale of Two Ninjas: The Story of How New York Ninja Came to Be, a short book authored by “re”-director Kurtis Spieler that covers the entire story of New York Ninja‘s production, from Spieler’s joining the Vinegar Syndrome team to the details of the final edit and release. There are two Blu-ray discs included in the set: the first disc includes the film and a selection of special features. The second disc is comprised of additional special features. These bonuses include a commentary track with Spieler; an extended making-of documentary; interview segments with Spieler and members of the band Voyag3r; a then-and-now revisiting of New York Ninja shooting locations hosted by Michael Gringold; deleted scenes with commentary from Spieler; B-roll and an outtake montage; and an original VHS sizzle reel, theatrical trailer, and still gallery.
Is it good? Look, New York Ninja is a dubbed, revamped work borne from the ashes of a discarded project—a collection of 30-plus-year-old canisters of film (with no surviving sound) re-edited, scored and voiced to present this lost footage to the public in an entertaining way. (I would’ve been thrilled to just look at that footage to see those shots of 1984 New York City.) No, it’s not something I’d pull out to watch with my parents or my sister or my girlfriend…but then, there’s hardly anything from my 80s cheese collection that they’d like—from New York Ninja to Enter the Ninja to American Ninja 4 (and probably anything else Vinegar Syndrome releases). Its appeal will heavily skew toward those who have nostalgia for the era and these types of movies (or anyone who truly appreciates the story behind the film.)
But in the end, we got a lot more than just some leftover footage to watch. This is a film that could have (and would have) been lost forever. That a boutique releasing company cared enough to save this footage and assemble what amounts to a 1984 ninja action movie (one I would’ve loved had I seen it at 8 years old) is just incredible, and should be applauded. It’s not trying to be the next Miami Connection (a similar lost-and-found story of a film finding new life in modern times). The new producers set out to recreate an old timey VHS favorite. Something resembling what we’d fondly remember from our youth…something we’d watch with a smile “40 years later.” That’s exactly what it is, and it’s all the better for it.