Writer Recommends #2: Ghost Dog The Way of the Samurai

1999

Written & Directed by: Jim Jarmusch

Starring: Forest Whitaker

Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) is a loner, living with his pigeons in a shack on a rooftop.  He lives according to the code of the samurai of ancient Japan, except this is modern day USA.  As a true samurai, he works for his master; Louie, a low-grade wiseguy for an ailing, and aging, mob outfit.  In doing so he performs hits on demand.   Contacted to hit a member of the mob who had been messing around with the mob boss’s daughter, Ghost Dog executes the hit to perfection, except he leaves the mob boss’s daughter as a witness.  This causes the mobsters to put a hit out on Ghost Dog.  Their idea is either they get Ghost Dog or they kill Louie.  Given the code of the samurai, Ghost Dog must protect his master and go after the mob himself.

As gritty as that may sound, there is a lot of dark humour to this movie.  The way that the brutality of the situation and the humour intertwines reminds me of Chopper.  The mobsters provide much of the humour in this movie; from mundane and idiotic conversations to their hap-hazard attempts to find and kill Ghost Dog.  Similar in essence to the Sopranos, these wiseguys are far from the too cool Goodfellas.

As we learn of the mobsters efforts to track down and kill Ghost Dog, so do we learn of Ghost Dog and his existence.  He is best friends with a French ice-cream seller who speaks no English, and Ghost Dog no French.  Yet they communicate sufficiently enough, even though neither is sure the other understands.  He is also befriended by a young girl who lives in the neighbourhood.  This often draws parallels with another hitman movie, Leon, but this is neither as extravagant or as outlandish.

Excerpts from “Hagakure: The Way of the Samurai” by Yamamoto Tsunetomo are read throughout the movie adding deeper meaning to each turn of events.

A stone cold killer, following his own sense of justice is usually a good basis for a movie and this is no exception and it is executed in a quirky enough way not to become anything but cool.  The brilliant soundtrack supplied by RZA of the Wu Tang Clan adds another dimension.

I suspect there are many nods and homages to samurai and Japanese culture, literature and movies; too may for me to understand or spot: a director’s commentary to explain them all would be fascinating.

I think it’s a brilliant little film that presents, in one sense, a straight forward action movie, with influences of hip-hop, mafia, kung-fu and literature that take it to the next level.

“All assassins live beyond the law…only one follows the code”

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