Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) / Thriller-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for strong violence and language
Running Time: 116 min.
Cast: Forest Whitaker, John Tormey, Henry Silva, Isaach de Bankole, Cliff Gorman
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch
Review published April 2, 2000
Demanding liberal amounts of artistic license to do with his characters whatever he wills, regardless of whether plausible or ludicrous, is the Way of Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man, Coffee and Cigarettes). With Ghost Dog, Jarmusch at times asks us to believe the impossible. But for those willing to overlook some very unrealistic and unbelievable scenes, Ghost Dog provides a unique narrative with lots of interesting and well-drawn characters unlike any you've seen before.
Forest Whitaker (Phenomenon, Consenting Adults) is the title character of Ghost Dog, an inner city Black youth who has spent much of his time studying the ways of the Samurai, ancient Japanese warriors known for their great code of war and life. His life is saved one day by Louie (Tormey, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion), a two-bit Italian gangster he has never met before, and according to his teachings, Ghost Dog must become Louie's "retainer" and serve him as best he can for the rest of his life. Ghost Dog spends the next few years as a hitman working for Louie, and does so in mysterious ways such that Louie knows very little about who Ghost Dog really is. In the latest hit, Ghost Dog is to take down one of the members of Louie's own crime family who is sleeping with the "godfather's" daughter. Ghost Dog executes the hit, but the girl is present at the time and witnesses all. Fearing loose ends, those in the family responsible for the hit go into the inner city to terminate Ghost Dog.
Well worth a view for people who enjoy their movies a little on the artsy side, and in particular hip hop heads will recognize much in the story to correlate some of the rap mythos between Eastern culture and their hip hop heroes (Wu-Tang Clan comes to mind, and in fact RZA (Kill Bill Vol. I, Soul Plane) provides the well-crafted hip hop score).
Forest Whitaker and the rest of the cast deliver their lines solidly, even when the character's reactions are difficult to swallow, and Jarmusch's quirky style does grow on you as the film unfolds. Still, there are so many good qualities, even great qualities, to Ghost Dog that it's a bit of a let-down that the implausibility of Jarmusch's character handling cripples the film's overall impact to the point of becoming almost unwatchable during certain moments.
That this film will gain a cult status is unquestionable, and for those more forgiving than I, there's much to love in this erudite outing. Like all ambitious artsy releases, your mileage will vary, and your expectations will be the sole determinant as to whether you consider this a great film with bad moments or a bad film with great moments. Worthwhile viewing either way.
©2000 Vince Leo