It takes a lot these days to get me to watch a movie in person. I (mostly) resisted the lure of two years of big, visually stunning shows. Sorry, “Dune”, “Tenet” and the Marvel Cinematic Universe – the sad fact is that I’ve resigned myself to watching even the most cinematic works at home, at least until the inconvenience is well and truly over. past (which is the case, empirically, no).
But I might go see “New York Ninja” on Friday at the Apohadion Theater.
Have you ever heard of “New York Ninja”? Don’t beat yourself up – hardly anyone has. In fact, “New York Ninja” barely exists.
Brought to you by the good folks at Portland’s Apohadion Theater, “New York Ninja” is an all-new entry in the “so bad, it’s good” movie genre. You know, the kind of film where the entertainment value exists in inverse proportion to the amount of cinematic skill exhibited. Others in the genre include the sleazy likes of “The Room,” “Birdemic: Shock and Terror,” “Miami Connection” and (unrelated to “New York Ninja”) “Samurai Cop.” Movies where what’s on screen evoke cries of wonder and delight that such an incompetent mess ever reached any screen, anywhere.
Of course, you can watch bad movies to have fun on your own. (God knows, but I’m a hopeless case.) But the real joy of watching a movie like “New York Ninja” or all the work of Las Vegas author Neil Breen (watch it, I dare you) is in sharing. Shows like “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and podcasts like “How Did This Get Made?”, “The Flop House” and Portland’s own “Fun Box Monster Podcast” amp up the fun by riffing with like-minded friends , the unanswered questions posed in every frame of a cheap basement as “Manos: The Hands of Fate” inspiration for infectious, participatory mockery.
Now, is that fair to the hard-working filmmakers and actors who are undoubtedly involved in “New York Ninja”? Probably not. God knows I respect anyone who can muster the will and the resources to produce a finished film. And yet, the real “so bad it’s good” movie is so misguided, so stuffed with incredibly bad ideas and executed with jaw-dropping inelegance that it takes on a life that poor filmmakers never could. to imagine.
It gets really fun. Even liked.
Enter “New York Ninja”. Shot in 1984 by underage Taiwanese martial arts actor John Liu, this gritty tale of “Death Wish”-style revenge (in ninja costume) was never completed. Found rotting in film cans in 2021 by fellow home video restoration heroes Vinegar Syndrome (named after the smell of film left rotting in cans for decades), the film was turned over to the director Kurtis M. Spieler. Spieler, sensing a particular sort of cinematic gold mine, leaned into the six to eight hours of raw footage (without sound, storyboards, or any sort of editing) and hired beloved veteran B-movie actors like Don “The Dragon” Wilson (“Bloodfist”), Cynthia Rothrock (“China O’Brien”), Michael Berryman (“The Hills Have Eyes”), Linnea Quigley (“Return of the Living Dead”) and Leon Isaac Kennedy ( “Penitentiary”) to dub the voices of a cast that, other than Liu, is virtually lost in time. (Seriously, no one has found their names.)
The resulting movie is a hot 93-minute mess of then-popular ninja antics (“Ninja III: The Domination” plays out in the film’s decrepit Times Square), absurd twists (plus muggers who literally stalk every corner there’s a serial killer and sex trafficker addicted to plutonium—who might be working for Interpol?), and some of the grittiest fight choreography outside of a school production of “The Karate Kid.” . Star/director/visionary Liu is a nimble little guy, and he can definitely fill out a floppy ninja outfit while standing on one leg. Its many (many) fights consist of traditional martial arts strategy, where our hero stands at the center of a crowd of bad guys all patiently waiting their turn to get the kiss kicked. So far, that’s normal for a bad movie.
But you really have to see “New York Ninja” to understand the real horror at play here. New director Spieler’s cut wouldn’t have been the same as Liu’s, to be fair. But, with the footage he had to work with, it’s unlikely that Spieler did any violence to Liu’s vision of a gang-ridden New York hellhole cobbled together from other much better films. Besides the traveling and surprisingly multicultural thugs of “Death Wish”, look for “The Warriors” (all thugs must wear makeup and masks), “A Clockwork Orange” (codpieces everywhere) and maybe a little Village People.
Our titular ninja uses all the traditional ninja tricks. You know, like ceramic eggs? That kind of explosion in a puff of debilitating chalk? (While “New York Ninja” has yet to rack up a chorus of audience participation at the “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” shouting “Egg!” whenever NYN is fine, but guarantees mass laryngitis.) During this time the cops are comically useless, the female hero gets kidnapped every 10 minutes or so, a press conference with the mayor (of New York) is attended by three people, and when cornered, our hero employs the deadliest ninja tactic of all by spinning the film backwards so he can jump out of frame. And he needs it, because our hero is stopped in his tracks by a guy with a gun so many times, it’s really not good publicity for ninja-ing as a whole. It’s a hoot. (Here I’m going to warn viewers that there’s a lot – I mean a lot – of implied and attempted sexual assaults in the film. As clumsily staged as they are, these scenes could be a deal breaker for some.)
My relationship with the film “so bad it’s good” is affectionate. I watched “New York Ninja” at home, alone, and could only nod in awe at Liu’s two distinct moans “Whhhhyyyyyy!!!???” to the clouds. And you can see it on Turner Classic Movies (which, thankfully, has a rubber band definition of the word “classic”). But a movie like this can only really be enjoyed in a crowd. A loud, happy, vocal crowd of like-minded movie fanatics and weirdos assorted. Luckily for Portland, The Apohadion is exactly the kind of place where such people congregate, and where long-forgotten treasure troves like “New York Ninja” are brought to us in all their bewildering, banana-flavored glory.
Watch “New York Ninja” at 7 p.m. Friday, I dare you. Tickets are $8 and can be purchased through theapohadiontheatre.com or at the door, with a post-movie Q&A from director/editor Kurtis Spieler. Apohadion policy requires masks and proof of vaccination for all events because Apohadion is responsible and not stupid.
Dennis Perkins lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.
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