Ghost Dog: The Ways of the Samurai (1999, Jim Jarmusch)
Jim Jarmusch is in love of tales that pit odd characters in odd settings facing odd situations. Dead Man was a fine example of that. The director continued the trend with Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, which stars Forest Whitaker as a solitary vigilante who worships the code of the samurai as described in Yamamoto Tsunemoto’s Hagakure. He serves a member of an Italian mob gang, Louie (John Tormey) who came to his aid 8 years ago, when Ghost Dog (before he adopted said name) was getting pulverized by a thug. Since then, Whitaker’s character has owed his life to Louie and serves as a hitman of sorts. To put all of this into perspective, Ghost Dog is like the African American version of The Man With No Name, only that he pretends to be a samurai and perhaps doesn’t always dish out perfect justice (although I’m hesitant to say The Man With No Name with a saint either). When a job goes sour for the first time ever, the Italian gang, to Louie’s dismay, decides to eradicate Ghost Dog, fearing he has compromised them. Well, Ghost Dog may have ties to Louie, but he’s still his own man, so he won’t go down quietly if you know what I mean. It’s time to show these fat ass mobsters how things were taken care of in ancient Japan. Sayonara suckas!
If I may, I’d like to begin by stating that I’ve taken a great liking to Jim Jarmusch’s style of cinema. He tells stories that are layered, focussed and quiet. Despite the overall quietness of his films, when violence erupts, it is brutal and unforgiving. I found those qualities in Ghost Dog. There was something very intriguing about the character of Ghost Dog. It wasn’t just the fact that he is an African American who lives on the rooftop of a building who has taken the decision to become a vigilante. It was more the manner in which he chose to do so. The idea to pit an Italian mob gang, with all their typical cinematic brash and crudeness against this man who has taken the oath of abiding by the methods of ancient Japanese warriors is quite unique. While I thought Ghost Dog was too well equipped at times (he has plenty of little tools and gizmos to help him out, including some sort of computer box that can unlock car doors and start engines), overall I ways really impressed by how well the whole thing turns out. He follows a method that this gang simply doesn’t understand and fails to appreciate. They truly don’t know what it is they are up against because the code of the samurai is so beyond what they know as gangsters. Despite that the gang is dead set on taking Ghost Dog down, he refuses to destroy his bond with Louie. Even though they are now part of opposing forces, he cannot do so for the code forbids it. It simply wouldn't be the honourable thing to do. I thought that mish mash of styles was amusing in its perplexity, fascinating in its oddness. Ghost Dog also has a best friend, a Haitian man who runs an ice cream parlour on wheels but who only speaks French, which Ghost Dog doesn’t understand. They have some pretty hilarious conversations.
Forest Whitaker takes this role very seriously, which makes his character all the more intriguing. An African American samurai living in an urban environment sounds like the premise for a comedy, but it isn’t played for laughs, far from it in fact. This is a movie of honour and the determination of one man to defend his methods and preserve his way of life while be hunted by these sluggish gangsters. He doesn’t even play the role to ‘be cool’, he’s really playing like someone trying with all their might to be the best samurai they can.
The music is provided by RZA and has, unsurprisingly a hip hop feel to it. This may be the weakest element of the film. The music in of itself wasn’t bad, but there were moments when I wished a different score had been used. It gets a tad redundant after a while. Perhaps a mixture of RZA beats with more a traditional orchestral score would have better suited the film. There is also the question of the final confrontation between Ghost Dog and another character, whose identity I shan’t reveal here. I understood why it took place, but I’d hesitate before saying it was the best choice for a climax. It a sense it worked, but a few things about it bothered me. It feeling a bit forced would be my number one complaint. For a film that took such an original twist on the action genre, the climax was somewhat of a letdown.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is a great little piece of entertainment. Quirky, unique and quite unforgiving in its depiction of violence, it was refreshing to watch.