Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

Director: Jim Jarmusch
Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch
Stars: Forest Whitaker (Ghost Dog), John Tormey (Louie), Cliff Gorman (Sonny Valerio), Henry Silva (Vargo), Isaach De Bankolé (Raymond), Tricia Vessey (Louise Vargo), Victor Argo (Vinny), Gene Ruffini (Old Consigliere), Richard Portnow (Handsome Frank), Camille Winbush (Pearline)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1999
Country: U.S. / France / Germany / Japan
Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai

Most film scholars will tell you that there are two quintessential American genres: the Western and the gangster film. Because iconoclastic independent writer/director Jim Jarmusch had already deconstructed the Western in Dead Man (1995), it was only logical that for his next narrative film he would turn his sights on the gangster film.

In Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Jarmusch mixes elements of the two most popular ethnic gang narratives—the Italian mobsters and the black gangstas—to create a jarring if not entirely bizarre recreation of the postmodern criminal underworld. Jarmusch’s world is a place where organized crime is a refuge for old, outdated men who are so pathetic that the landlord is threatening them for owing two months’ rent on the Chinese restaurant they use as a nightclub, and their best hit man is an inner-city African American who subscribes to the ancient ways of the samurai warrior sect.

This hit man goes by the name of Ghost Dog, and he is played with guarded silence and deep sincerity by Forest Whitaker (who would win an Oscar a few years later for playing the African dictator Idi Amin in 2007’s The Last King of Scotland). Ghost Dog lives as the ancient Japanese samurai warriors did, and his guide is an 18th-century warrior manual by Yamamoto Tsunetomo called Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai. At certain intervals (13 times throughout the film), Jarmusch fills the screen with instructive passages from the manual, while Whitaker’s Ghost Dog reads them aloud on the soundtrack. These passages range from philosophical Buddhist teachings (“form is emptiness; emptiness is form”) to instructions on how a samurai may use rouge to improve his complexion.

The narrative itself is fairly straightforward: Ghost Dog has become the retainer of a low-level New Jersey mobster named Louie (John Tormey), a man who once saved his life. Being Louie’s retainer means that Ghost Dog swears eternal obedience to his master (the worst thing that can happen to a samurai is for his master to be killed). Ghost Dog makes the mistake of carrying out an assigned hit in front of the daughter of one of Louie’s bosses, so the bosses decide that Ghost Dog needs to be rubbed out for his mistake (the logic by which these bosses decide that Ghost Dog is somehow at fault is strained at best, ludicrous at worst).

This narrative is spare, and it allows for Jarmusch’s favorite activity: observing the usually unobserved details in life. Those viewers who approach Ghost Dog expecting a suspense-filled crime-world shoot-em-up will be satisfied with the levels of violence and the body count (although the shoot-outs are done in a stark, almost perfunctory style that drains them of the expected vicarious excitement), but might find themselves restless at the long stretches in-between. There are numerous scenes depicting Ghost Dog’s growing friendship with a young girl named Pearline (Camille Winbush), with whom he shares books (including a copy of Rashomon). There are also several sequences between Ghost Dog and his best friend, a French-speaking Haitian ice cream vendor named Raymond (Isaach De Bankolé). Of course, Ghost Dog and Raymond have no idea what the other is actually saying, but somehow they always manage to communicate.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai takes its time in developing its story and characters. Some find Jarmusch’s films intolerable in their languorous pacing and long takes, and while that tendency is sometimes overwrought, it is restrained in here through a number of methods, most notably the soundtrack by RZA, one of the members of the Wu-Tang Clan, and a fine performance by Forest Whitaker. Whitaker is completely convincing as both a professional killer with nerves of steel and as a generally soft-hearted man who likes to eat ice cream in the park. He has a soft, amiable face that can tighten into a mask of steely determination in a heartbeat; I couldn’t imagine another actor in the role.

It helps the film immeasurably that it is often quite funny. Jarmusch has always had a sharp sense of wit and gallows humor, and his films are often funny to those who are willing to get the jokes. Ghost Dog has moments of broad-based humor, such as when Ghost Dog bursts in on a couple of the mafia cronies who want to whack him, and one of them is so old and wheezy that he literally has a heart attack and dies before he can be shot. There is also the hilarious sequence in which Louie tries to explain his admittedly strange professional relationship with Ghost Dog (they communicate via carrier pigeons) to the incredulous higher-ups in his organization.

In addition to the humor and violence, there is a constant, uneasy current about race in the film, which is brought to a head when Ghost Dog runs across a couple of racist illegal bear hunters on a country highway. That Ghost Dog had previously been compared to a bear makes the sequence all the more symbolic. But, how exactly that fits in with the rest of the film is a bit questionable, and if Ghost Dog has a weakness, it is that all the parts don’t quite come together. Of course, Jarmusch is engaged in an act of deconstruction, not construction, so some loose ends and ill-fitting remnants are expected.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is certainly not a conventional film, although it sometimes feels that way on a strictly narrative level (the climax is right out of High Noon, but it is so blatantly iconic that it has to be subversive). It seems most clear that Jarmusch is making a statement about modern urban alienation, especially within the crumbling inner city. Ghost Dog’s adherence to a samurai warrior code may seem distinctly out of place in the world of organized crime at the beginning of the 21st century, but perhaps it can be seen as a fight against current tendencies to refuse definitions and constantly muddy the waters (a not-so-subtle irony in a film that deconstructs a classic American genre).

While there is a great deal of conniving and backstabbing amongst the mafiosos, there is never any doubt as to where Ghost Dog stands, which is what makes him stand out. In the strangest of worlds, he is the lone rock, a man who has a code and actually lives by it, even if that means his death. The simple fact that he lives by a code, more than the fact that said code is ancient in origin, is what makes him an anachronism in his own time.

Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo isolated music track
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Q&A with writer/director Jim Jarmusch, in which he responds to questions sent in by fans
  • Video conversation between actors Forest Whitaker and Isaach De Bankolé, moderated by film scholar Michael B. Gillespie
  • Video interview with casting director Ellen Lewis
  • Video interview with Shifu Shi Yan Ming, founder of the USA Shaolin Temple
  • “Flying Birds: The Music of Ghost Dog” video essay by filmmaker Daniel Raim
  • “The Odyssey: A Journey into the Life of a Samurai,” a 2000 program on the making of the film
  • Deleted scenes and outtakes
  • Archival interviews
  • Trailer
  • Essays by critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and Greg Tate, a 2000 interview with Jarmusch, and quotations from Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateNovember 17, 2020

    Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai was last released on home video by Artisan on DVD back in 2003. An upgrade has, therefore, been long overdue, and Criterion’s new Blu-ray offers a welcome replacement. The image is derived from a new 16-bit 4K scan of the original 35mm A/B camera negative under the supervision of writer/director Jim Jarmusch. Extensive digital restoration and clean-up has made the image look brand new while still retaining a healthy level of grain and texture. Compared to the old DVD, the image on the Blu-ray is quite a bit brighter, and the color temperature has shifted toward more of a grayish-green hue. Detail is excellent throughout, although the image maintains just the slightest softness. The original stereo soundtrack has been remixed into a new 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio track that sounds great. There is some decent action in the surround channels, especially during the various gunfights, and RZA’s \ score is given added weight and presence. Fans of the score will enjoy the fact that, as with the DVD, it is available on an isolated stereo track, as well. Criterion has also stacked their release with supplements, starting with a new 90-minute audio-only Q&A with Jarmusch, in which he answers questions about the film that have been sent in by fans (this has been a regular feature of Jarmusch’s Criterion releases). Also new to Criterion’s disc is an engaging 30-minute conversation (conducted via video conference, this being the year of COVID and all) with actors Forest Whitaker and Isaach De Bankolée and film scholar Michael B. Gillespie, associate professor in the Department of Media and Communication Arts and the Black Studies Program at The City College of New York and author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (2016); a 25-minute video interview with casting director Ellen Lewis; and a 6-minute video interview with Shifu Shi Yan Ming, founder of the USA Shaolin Temple. Filmmaker Daniel Raim offers a new 25-minute video essay on RZA’s score titled “Flying Birds: The Music of Ghost Dog,” and we also get two archival featurettes: the 15-minute “Hero’s Journey: Jim Jarmusch, Forest Whitaker, and RZA on Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai,” which is exactly what the title promises, and “The Odyssey: A Journey into the Life of a Samurai,” a making-of featurette that also includes interviews with Jarmusch, Whitaker, and RZA. To round things off there are six minutes of deleted scenes and outtakes and a trailer. The case includes a thick insert booklet with essays by critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and Greg Tate and a 2000 interview with Jarmusch and a tiny fold-out booklet of quotations from Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai that are featured in the film.

    Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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