New York Ninja is a time capsule, but then so are all films. Even a newly released title will have been in development typically for years, during which it will have accrued and embedded layers of its own recent history in the making. Look further afield, to films made a decade, or decades, or even a century, ago, and you are going back in time to eras now entirely bygone, but for their preservation in the recording that you see – a chronicle filtered through the imagination. This is where nostalgia comes into play, triggering a vivid memory of moments otherwise gone – of childhood’s faded reality or lost dreams. All that is required to lend a film nostalgia, at least in its simplest form, is the passage of time (and decent archiving, or a lucky find), so that images that were once of the moment now come with a tint of rose and an ingrained aroma of passé charm. And while there will always be hipsters who snigger at the outmoded stylisations of art from previous generations, some filmmakers openly embrace irony in their quest for nostalgia, by excavating film history in knowingly absurd reimaginings where a past that never quite was is lovingly resurrected and exaggerated for the purposes of pastiche – think Carl Reiner’s Dead Men Don’t Where Plaid (1982), the Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino diptych Grindhouse (2007), James Eisener’s Hobo With A Shotgun (2011) or near anything by Astron-6. Taiwanese martial arts actor/director John Liu’s film hits all these notes, having patiently acquired its sense of nostalgia, and of knowing self-mockery, by a ninja’s stealth.
New York Ninja opens with a shot of the now long vanished Twin Towers, and is in many ways itself a Ground Zero for nostalgia, sending the viewer on a journey backwards à la recherche du temps perdu. Shot on 35mm by Liu in 1984, but then canned before it could ever be completed and lost for decades, its unedited reels have only recently been rediscovered by Vinegar Syndrome, and lovingly reconstructed by Kurtis Spieler who had to reassemble the film without any of the original sound or indeed even a screenplay. The result is a thorough post-millennial engagement with materials from about 37 years earlier, including a period-accurate synth score from Voyag3r, a plausibly reimagined screenplay that has been synched to the characters’ lip movements, and newly dubbed voice work from artists like Don ‘the Dragon’ Wilson, Michael Berryman, Linnea Quigley, Leon Isaac Kennedy, Cynthia Rothrock and Ginger Lynn Allen – who were all themselves, at the time Liu was shooting, active in the B-movie scene, even if they were not the original actors (many of whose names are now lost to time) in Liu’s production.
The plot of New York Ninja is paper thin, and also rather unhinged. After his pregnant wife Nita (voiced by Allen) is murdered in the street, mild-mannered TV news station sound technician John – played by Liu, voiced by Wilson – decides to take the law into his own hands and to take out the Big Apple’s trash. Yet without the superpowers of Superman or Spider-man or the resources of Batman, this one-man vigilante force instead takes up the blades, shuriken and smoke bombs of ninjutsu. After fighting his way through colourfully costumed, rape-happy gangs that resemble low-rent extras from Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979) and that patently lack Liu’s fighting skills, our sometimes roller-skating hero eventually gets closer to the Plutonium Killer (voiced by Berryman), an irradiated ex-CIA mesmerist, serial murderer and kidnapping kingpin whose actions never make any sense on any level, but who was indirectly responsible for Nita’s death. Meanwhile, John also takes home and adopts an injured little Kid (voiced by Zihan Zhao), in a bare-chested, bed-sharing adult/child relationship that is in no way suspect, because paedophilia (unlike gang rape and white slave trafficking) did not exist in the Eighties, right?
Liu’s film came amid a veritable fad for ninja in the US, fuelled by Eric Van Lustbader’s novel The Ninja (1980) plus its cycle of sequels, and by grindhouse and drive-in successes like Eric Karson’s The Octagon (1980), and the Cannon Films trilogy of Menahem Golan’s Enter The Ninja (1981) and Sam Firstenberg’s sequels in name only Revenge of the Ninja (1983) and Ninja III: The Domination (1984). In fact, a poster for Ninja III can be spotted in the background of New York Ninja, serving as signifier both of the tradition in which Liu was working, and of the diminishing returns that he was inheriting. For Liu was very much riding the back of this wave – even if Firstenberg would recoup his (moderate) success in the genre with his subsequent American Ninja movies. Make no mistake, New York Ninja is bad, and it is not hard to see why it was shelved. Near the beginning, John’s news colleague Jack (voiced by Vince Murdocco) states unnecessarily, “I can’t believe that John’s wife was murdered,” before adding, even more unnecessarily, “That’s terrible!” This sets the tone for risible, tone-deaf dialogue, cheese-and-ham character interactions, an utterly inert sense of drama, and – leaving aside Liu’s own obvious physical talents – some very amateurish action sequences wherein armies of thugs seem just to line up and wait their turn for John to take them out, again and again.
Still, never forget the power of nostalgia. Everything that made New York Ninja seem stilted and incompetent has acquired, through time, a cosy quality. Even as the titling camera passes over a (today taboo) poster for Camel Lights bearing the (now retrofuturist-seeming) slogan, “It’s a whole new world”, Liu’s film transports us to a different time with different values, an alternative universe where the ubiquitous “I ♥︎ NY” mascot encodes another, newer message: “I ♥︎ the Eighties”. Here Spieler’s restorative interventions distil and bottle that warm-and-fuzzy feeling of putting a VHS into the machine for the first (or third, or seventh) time, and just immersing yourself in whatever cheap sensations followed. Sure it is trash, but it is also the collected trash of memory and of childhood, on which no price can be put – and it comes with the added pleasure of now being able to be viewed with the irony of distance, so that, seen through today’s eyes, this once at least semi-sincere exercise in scuzzy vengeance and masked crime-fighting has become, as well as a repository of lost memories, its own best self-parody.
strap: Kurtis Spieler’s reassemblage of John Liu’s long-lost ninja movie high-kicks the sweet spot between Eighties scuzzy cheese and post-millennial ironic nostalgia
© Anton Bitel