Directed by: Jim Jarmusch.
Written by: Jim Jarmusch.
Starring: Forest Whitaker (Ghost Dog), John Tormey (Louie), Cliff Gorman (Sonny Valerio), Frank Minucci (Big Angie), Richard Portnow (Handsome Frank), Tricia Vessey (Louise Vargo), Henry Silva (Ray Vargo), Victor Argo (Vinny), Isaach De Bankolé (Raymond), Camille Winbush (Pearline), Gary Farmer (Nobody).
In his review of Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Roger Ebert wonders why more people didn’t point out what he sees as the fact that the main character in the film is insane. Ebert’s reasoning is solid. Forest Whitaker plays the title character in modern day Jersey City as a mob assassin who lives by the ancient rules of the samurai and communicates only by carrier pigeons. That’s not normal behavior – and in fact one of the film’s funniest scenes has Louie (John Tormey), the mobster Ghost Dog works for, try and explain to his bosses what Ghost Dog’s name is and why he can’t just call him up *”Did you just say he contacts you through a bird?”). Perhaps the reason why no one mentions that Ghost Dog is insane, despite all the evidence that he is, is because he’s seems so calm, so sure of himself at every moment in the film. He lives by a code in a world where no one else does – and is willing to do anything for that code. He lives the way he does because it makes sense to him in a world where nothing else does. It gives him something to hold onto.
Like all of Jim Jarmusch’s films, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is strange from the beginning – it has to rank among the strangest films about a hit man ever made. Whitaker’s Ghost Dog gets himself in trouble – through no fault of his own – when he completes the first job we see him given in the movie. He is to take out a mobster who is sleeping with the boss’ daughter, Louise (Tricia Vessey). He does so, but is seen by the Louise, mean her father decides he needs to take out Ghost Dog – and perhaps Louie, the man Ghost Dog works for as well. Ghost Dog is loyal to Louie – he is his retainer, and Ghost Dog treats him as a samurai would his master – he is willing to do anything for him. With both his own life, and Louie’s, on the line, Ghost Dog decides to do the only thing he can – and kill every other mobster around. These scenes of harsh, brutal violence are contrasted against some gentler ones of Ghost Dog interacting with his best friend, Raymond (Jarmusch regular Isaach De Bankolé), who speaks no English, and because Ghost Dog doesn’t speak French, neither knows what the other one is saying – and a young girl named Pearline (Camille Wimbush). At times, there almost seem to be two movies going on – with only Whitaker’s eerily calm Ghost Dog connecting them.
Like his other movies, Ghost Dog is basically about an outsider – someone who doesn’t fit in with the world around him, but doesn’t really want to either. This is one of Whitaker’s best performances – the one that springs immediately to mind whenever I think of the actor. He may have won an Oscar for going over the top nasty (brilliantly) in The Last King of Scotland (2006) – but Whitaker has mainly made a career out of playing men who are somewhat gentler than his hulking appearance suggests. His Ghost Dog is willing, and able, to kill without feeling or remorse – but neither does he take pleasure in it. He is spookily calm at every point in the movie, and this makes him a strange character to center a movie around – but a perfect one for Jarmusch.
Jarmusch has fun in other areas of Ghost Dog as well – the gangsters in the film aren’t so much realistic as they are parodies of movie gangsters, and Jarmusch has fun with them as they discuss hip hop, or in one scene dance around to rap music, before Ghost Dog’s most inventive kill. Jarmusch also throws in the strange view of a man building a boat on his rooftop – how’s he going to get it down, no one knows – but it shows that at least Ghost Dog isn’t the only insane person living in this world. Gary Farmer shows up here again for one scene – once again playing a character named Nobody, and like in Dead Man, delivers the perfect line “Stupid fucking white man”. For all I know, he’s the same character as in Dead Man – more than a century later, but still going strong.
Ghost Dog is a little slighter than much of Jarmusch’s work. Like always, he’s not so much interested in plot as he is in character and mood – but at nearly two hours, the film certainly drags at points, and starts to feel repetitive. But he’s clearly having fun playing around in genre film. It isn’t the genre twisting masterwork of Dead Man, but it’s an odd, strangely hypnotic film. I’ve never seen anything quite like before – and I doubt I’ll see anything like it again anytime soon.