Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai (1999) Movie Review

Jim Jarmusch’s “Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai” is an unexpected film in storytelling, execution, and even make-up. It’s a stylish action film about a slightly overweight black man living in the projects who, on what seems like a whim, discovers Bushido, the Japanese code of the warrior, and becomes a hitman who models himself after the Samurai.

The movie’s title and premise are rather odd. What’s more odd is the setting — a poor inner city neighborhood infested with gangs and crime. The hero, a black man, looks nothing like a hero. He sits countless hours alone on a rooftop shack reading a book on Bushido and immersing himself in that long-dead culture. In-between studies and killing assignments, our hero feeds the pigeons and practices with his katana sword. All the while the city continues its degradation around him.

Forest Whitaker, in what could be his best role to date, plays Ghost Dog, the assassin who doesn’t look, dress, or move like an assassin, but sure does the assassin’s job with perfect precision. It’s somewhat cliche to say that Ghost Dog is a loner, rather by choice or because of his profession, and that he spends much of his time alone wishing he wasn’t so lonely. He also allows himself the small luxury of communicating with a third party just enough to prevent himself from becoming too attached. In those respects, writer/director Jim Jarmusch really breaks no new ground, which is a disappointment considering the film’s other original qualities.

The thing that sets “Ghost Dog” apart from others in the Hitman genre is the film’s brilliant merging of style and substance. Ghost Dog’s relationship with a low-level Italian Mafioso is intriguing. After Ghost Dog is saved from death by the Mafioso, the man becomes Ghost Dog’s retainer — that is, his Lord — rather he likes it or not. Since Ghost Dog follows the rules of Bushido, his life no longer belongs to himself, but to the Mafioso. It is that relationship, and the Mafioso’s need for a third-party killer, that cements the two men’s bond. It is also that relationship that eventually undo both men.

While “Ghost Dog” is not wall-to-wall action, it is a violent film, and the bodies fall freely. When the mob turns on Ghost Dog, things become very bloody, and the film threatens to turn slightly excessive in the bloodshed department. Through it all, the movie maintains an ever-present sense of doom and dread. You get the feeling things aren’t going to turn out well for our hero, that despite all his skills and arsenal, his fall is imminent.

A very interesting addition to “Ghost Dog” is Jarmusch’s insistence on following Ghost Dog as he prepares, and then executes, his missions. Jarmusch’s camera follows Ghost Dog from his shack on the roof to the target’s house and all the spaces in-between. We see Ghost Dog boot a car, see him drive to the assignment, and see him meticulously set up that assignment and finally pull that trigger. All of this, and not a single boring moment.

Jarmusch makes extensive use of rap music to set the mood as Ghost Dog goes about his business. The movie exudes style from every pore, leaving me to wonder why, if Jarmusch is so free-spirited and fluid in the genre, he doesn’t do more films like this. “Ghost Dog”, despite all of its oddity, could very well be Jarmusch’s most mainstream film ever. The look, feel, and vibe are all about the urban city, and the soundtrack booms with gangster rap.

Yet, in the end “Ghost Dog” is not original enough, and follows John Woo and other Hong Kong filmmakers into the arena of Heroic Bloodshed. It’s been done to death, so in that way the ending is not surprisingly but rather expected, which is not a good thing considering how original “Ghost Dog” had been up to that point.

Still, “Ghost Dog” is a superior film that definitely deserves as wide an audience as possible. It breaks a lot of new grounds, retreads some familiar ones, but is always entertaining throughout.

Jim Jarmusch (director) / Jim Jarmusch (screenplay)
CAST: Forest Whitaker …. Ghost Dog
John Tormey …. Louie
Cliff Gorman …. Sonny Valerio
Richard Portnow …. Handsome Frank
Tricia Vessey …. Louise Vargo

Buy Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai on DVD