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Anomaly film festival presents silly, nostalgic kung fu flick 'New York Ninja'


John Liu, in the kung fu movie "New York Ninja," which plays at The Little Theatre on Saturday, Nov. 6, as part of the film festival Anomaly. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • John Liu, in the kung fu movie "New York Ninja," which plays at The Little Theatre on Saturday, Nov. 6, as part of the film festival Anomaly.
Love! Pregnancy! Kidnappers in fedoras and cowboy hats! Subway-stair slaughters! And that’s just the first three minutes of “New York Ninja,” a nonsensical 1980s kung fu flick with an equally ridiculous origin story.

In 1984, Taiwanese martial arts star John Liu wrote, directed, and starred in “New York Ninja.” However, the project was abandoned after filming, and all audio recordings, along with the original script, were lost. Only the film negatives remained. More than three decades later, cult film preservation and distribution company Vinegar Syndrome acquired the footage and, armed with nothing more than the film reels, set out to do the impossible: give the world “New York Ninja.”

The New York Ninja, like many kung fu heroes, is born of vengeance. John — played by Liu and newly voiced by Don “The Dragon” Wilson, one of several genre-film icons to lend their vocal cords — starts out as a mild-mannered sound man until his wife, Nita (voiced by Ginger Lynn Allen), witnesses the latest in a series of abductions and is murdered by a cufflinked gangster. When the police don’t do enough, John takes matters into his own fists and becomes the masked vigilante of the Big Apple.

Armed with powder bombs and engraved shurikens — the New York Ninja’s calling card — John takes on the cartoonishly masked gangs of New York. Liu’s fight choreography ranges from mild and predictable to delightfully silly (two words: roller skates). The fight scenes are plentiful, though often underwhelming due to the apparent ineptness of the fiendish thugs. Even when armed with weapons, they circle up and patiently wait for one of John’s graceful, sweeping kicks — Liu’s claim to fame — to knock them out.
Along with a cast of stock characters, including a spunky kid sidekick and a persistent reporter, John learns that none other than the Plutonium Killer (voiced by Michael Berryman) is behind the sudden string of kidnappings. With his snarling upper lip, long trench coat, dark goggles, and campy facial contortions, the Plutonium Killer feels like a less cohesive cousin to Judge Doom from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” The radioactive villain is ex-CIA, regularly huffs glowing green chemicals, and cannot be exposed to light despite spending large chunks of the film in the sun. The less time spent trying to piece together the logic to the Plutonium Killer, the better.

The same can be said for most of “New York Ninja.” Instead of going for a full-on spoof or forcing a stronger narrative, screenwriter and — as he is billed in the credits — “re-director” Kurtis M. Spieler does his best to make sense of what Liu has provided him, augmented by Voyag3r’s synth-laden score. The result is a film less about an actual story and more about the joy of 1980s kung fu nostalgia.

Anomaly — The Rochester Genre Film Festival presents: “New York Ninja" on Sat., Nov. 6, at 7 p.m., at The Little Theatre, 240 East Avenue. $12 general admission, $10 students and seniors. Proof of vaccination, photo ID, and mask required. 585-258-0400.

Katherine Kiessling is a member of the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications program’s 2021-21 cohort at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. Feedback on this article can be directed to [email protected].