There are relatively few famous unfinished films, ranging from von Sternberg’s “I, Claudius” to Jerry Lewis’ “The Day the Clown Cried” to various Orson Welles joints that continue to be patched together by former collaborators long after his death. But most such projects, usually abandoned due to financial and/or legal woes, languish in an obscurity compounded by the fact no one cries for the resuscitation of something they don’t know exists.
But somebody did notice the plight of “New York Ninja,” a 1984 indie martial-arts extravaganza that would have been the first (and last) American vehicle for multi-hyphenate star John Liu, a moderately successful figure in Taiwanese action cinema. An already marginal, guerrilla-shot endeavor whose plug got pulled when the planned distributor went under, it has now been meticulously if none-too-seriously reconstructed by Vinegar Syndrome’s Kurtis M. Spieler, who “re-directed” the extant footage sans any surviving original script or sound components.
Its newly dubbed dialogue performed by a host of fan-fave exploitation veterans including Cynthia Rothrock, Leon Isaac Kennedy and Ginger Lynn Allen, this Frankensteinian feature emerges a bonanza of grindhouse badness that releases to a series of mostly single-date theatrical showings starting Jan. 17. Like another solid-gold camp nugget in the same vein excavated a few years ago, “Samurai Cop,” it should immediately accrue a belated but well-deserved cult following.
The Blu-ray edition has a 50-minute documentary (“Re-Enter the New York Ninja”) recapping the film’s murky initial history and path to eventual reclamation. But all original production records were lost, so most of the cast and crew remain unidentified. Liu himself, when finally tracked down in Vietnam, declined to participate in aiding either Vinegar Syndrome’s preparatory research or assembly of a first-ever release cut. So by necessity there was a great deal of “creative freedom,” particularly as Spieler needed to somewhat invent a narrative to glue together footage whose intended story appeared near-senseless in unedited form. He also had to write dialogue to fit the mouths moving silently on-screen … well, more or less fit.
Liu’s protag, also called John (now voiced by Don “The Dragon” Wilson), is a wiry Manhattanite thrown into despair when his pregnant wife gets killed by thugs amid a citywide kidnapping epidemic. When not bare-fistedly breaking plates and particle boards in his grief, he rescues children and other innocents from the lawless punks terrorizing the streets à la such contemporary films as “Class of 1984” and Cannon’s “Death Wish” sequels. There’s also a mystery man in a Rolls-Royce called the Plutonium Killer (voice of horror fave Michael Berryman) for his mutant homicidal radioactivity.
John is comforted by his friend, TV reporter Randi (Adrienne Meltzer, voiced by Linnea Quigley), who’s also on the crime wave-investigative case, along with her comedy-relief cameraman, two jaded police detectives, a guy from Interpol and more. When our hero’s incognito deliverance of vigilante justice — and his flying feet, sometimes on roller skates — attracts media attention, a Superman-like fan base develops among citizens for what they name the “New York Ninja.”
With shoestring production values, Liu’s energetically silly fight choreography, good use of stolen locations and 35mm imagery in first-rate preservative condition, “Ninja” has cheesily entertaining elements that it combines in a very lively fashion. Spieler’s editorial assembly is tight, while the original score by Detroit-based latter-day retro band Voyag3r flawlessly re-creates ’80s synth-rock soundtrack motifs.
Somehow the end result of all this piecing-together is a deliciously campy but fond whole — quite the opposite of last year’s “Grizzly II: Revenge,” another salvage job whose equally old derelict parts turned out too meager to construct even a watchable curio from. Here, a psychotronic good time for all is ensured by the game goofiness of the action, which encompasses too-clumsy-to-be-offensive sexploitation as well as a dollop of villainous sci-fi horror, plus contrary stabs at “G-rated” appeal. (There’s an eventual cheering army of “kid ninjas.”) The on-screen actors’ raw hamming is nicely complemented by the voice performers’ relatively deadpan contributions, which only render the dialogue and situations even more absurd.
With all credit due the reconstructionists, one suspects that if “New York Ninja” had indeed been completed in 1984, it might’ve been remembered by completist genre buffs ever since as one of the era’s more outré low-budget guilty pleasures. This tardy debut, however, gives it the benefit of launching as something of an Event among trash nostalgists, an unearthed celluloid time capsule from the dankest days of Times Square.