Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)


Think of a duel between Don Corleone and Samurai Jack, with the Wu-Tang Clan blasting somewhere in the background. Yeah, pretty weird.

Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) is a quiet, lonely hitman, living in the modern world. Nothing really all that strange about that right? Well, he is a hitman that adheres to the code of the samurai; meaning he doesn’t use technology, has total respect for those who employs him and can only be contacted by carrier pigeon. As odd as this may seem, it somehow has been working for him for the longest time, all until he finds himself in a huge pickle once the mob that hired him to do the job, decide that he botched it up and want him dead. However, Ghost don’t play that shit and they’re going to most likely find that out.

To be honest, I’ve never been a huge fan of Jim Jarmusch. The guy seems like he has his own certain style that pretty much leans only towards his audience and kind of says, “‘eff off” to those who aren’t as fond of it, or not nearly as hip as those who do like and appreciate his work. I think I’m a bit part of the latter, which is why I wasn’t really looking forward to watching his mash-up of a gangster and samurai film. Seems a bit of a strange mixture to put together in the first place, and having Jarmusch being the one to combine the two, only made it seem the more odd.

However, it seems like without Jarmusch, this material couldn’t have even worked any other way.

Don't you just hate it when that happens?!?
Don’t you just hate it when that happens?!?

What I liked about this flick and Jarmusch’s direction is that the guy settles things down pretty quickly, and allows us to feel the nature and essence of this story. It’s a pretty standard story of a hired-job-gone-wrong and the people having to pay for it, but the way Jarmusch focuses more on the characters, the style behind the characters, and the setting that surrounds them is something that makes this a tad different than many other crime movies of this nature. There’s a laid-back feel to this movie that doesn’t really kick-start up once the action does; it sort of just moves around. But it’s never boring because of that. Instead, it gave me a clearer-view of whom I was working with here and got me ready for the grisly violence that actually came to be a bit of a shock for me.

Though Jarmusch is, in essence, a very stylish-director, the violence he portrays in this movie doesn’t really have all that much style to it. There’s a lot of guns being touted-around like candy; gun being fired; blood squibs flying; limbs being torn-apart; and more than enough people getting offed in some pretty reckless ways. It’s all standard crime-thriller stuff that we’ve seen a hundred times before, but Jarmusch does something neat with it that makes it work moreso for him and his legion of fans.

That mainly has to do with how Jarmusch is able to incorporate humor and a bit of dark comedy to each scene that features somebody getting shot-up. It almost reminded me a bit of a Coen Brothers movie where somebody’s head could be practically on the ground, and they’d still find a way to make a chuckle or two about it. That’s how Jarmusch is with the violence and material here and even though he isn’t as subtle or surprising with it as the Coens, he still has something to show and provides us with plenty of violence to cure any crime-movie lover’s needs. Still, it’s a movie about a samurai who lives in the current-world, so why the hell didn’t Ghost Dog at least draw the sword every once and awhile on some unlucky piece of Italiano shit? Seriously, I mean we see him practicing with it and laying by it, but it’s barely ever used.

Oh well, the guy could definitely kill me in a heartbeat so I won’t go on any longer.

Even though this isn’t as weird and quirky as most Jarmusch films are, you still can’t help but feel like this guy really carries the film back. For instance, all of the samurai babble that would literally come in every six minutes was okay for the first two or three times it was done, because it made sense to the story and to our main character. But after awhile, when they dived themselves into about 15 sayings that nobody cared about, then I got annoyed. And it wasn’t even that I didn’t try to care about them and pay attention, because trust me, I did but after awhile, I just started to realize that they had nothing to do with the story and was just one way of Jarmusch trying to get us inside of the head of this character that I feel like we connected with already. There’s a whole bunch of other liberties that Jarmusch takes with this movie and even though they didn’t all piss me off, they still made me feel like it was just another case of Jarmusch trying too hard.

Also, I get that everybody loves this soundtrack because it featured all of RZA’s work before he went-off and did the score for Kill Bill, but it is literally the same noise over-and-over again. Every time there’s a sequence of Ghost Dog walking down the street, driving down the street, or just looking plain and simply cool, the film starts to play this over-bearing track of RZA rapping over a bunch of bells and weird drum-beats. Just like the “samurai babble” I alluded to earlier, once or twice is good but after it gets into the double-digits, then I have a bit of a problem. Mixing mobster and samurai movies, to the beat of rap music is a pretty nifty-idea, I just wish there was more rap involved to where I felt like it really made a difference to the story and not just used as a gimmick to show how whack those old, Italian mobsters are because they can’t connect with the modern-world.

From one true samurai, to another.
From one true samurai, to another.

Despite all this, the highlight of this movie for me was probably watching Forest Whitaker (and his lazy eye) just kick total-ass as Ghost Dog. Whitaker is the type of actor that’s all about presence and having a look to him that can scare the hell out of you. That’s what he does here as Ghost Dog, but the guy isn’t one, big walking cliche of the silent stranger who does his dirty work and gets on with his life like a bit of a scarred-weirdo; he’s actually pretty down-to-earth and you like him for that. Yeah, he’s a bit weird because he talks to pigeons half of the movie, but then again, you would too if all you did was kill people, send people messages by birds, and never want anybody to know who you are.

Actually, I think I’d just get a dog instead, but that’s just me.

Anyway, Whitaker is awesome as Ghost Dog and makes you feel like you can stand fully-behind this guy to do the right thing and hopefully, just hopefully, just come out on-top at the end. Watching him kill all of these old, out-of-date mobsters was hilarious because they just fumbled around like a bunch of worthless goons and watching them get taken down by a dude who seemed to be in a whole, different time-zone than they were, really made this a bit more enjoying to watch. Sounds quite morbid, I know, but it’s the simple pleasures like that, which make movies like this a lot better in my mind.

I’m a sicko, I know. It’s what I live with on a day-to-day basis.

Consensus: There’s a couple of instances in which Jim Jarmusch allow his goofiness to get too in the way of Ghost Dog‘s story, but nonetheless, it’s still a neat mixture of everything that mobster movies do so well, along what samurai movies as well.

7.5 / 10 = Rental!!

Beautiful New York: Where African-American samurais run free on roof-tops.
Beautiful New Jersey: Where African-American samurais run free on roof-tops.

Photo’s Credit to: IMDBColliderJoblo

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29 comments

  1. One of my favourite Jim Jarmush films! It works on multiple levels and Whitaker gives a solid performance. I think I need to re-watch this again soon! Well written Dan!

  2. This is one of my favorite films by Jim Jarmusch not just because of it’s humor but also as a tribute to the samurai films of the 1950s/1960s while it has a lot of references to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai.

  3. Nice review Dan. It’s one of my favourite Jarmusch films, particularly because of the humour you mention. I also like the way it appears at the most serious moments.

  4. Haven’t seen this movie in years, great review. I never even thought of comparing this with Samurai Jack, there are a lot of similarities (long silences). Think Il have to watch this again

  5. I am going to watch this again, it is a cut above the usual B movie fodder found around this type of subject matter. Forest W is also a cut above and nearly always delivers and does so with this performance.

  6. Great review Dan! I didn’t like this one the first time I saw it, but loved it second time. Wu Tang samurais are definitely the best kind of samurais haha. Nice blend of genres though like you said. Jarmusch written all over it!

  7. I enjoyed this when I saw it, but it’s been at least five years since then. Definitely need to check it out again. Thanks for the reminder of a forgotten gem 🙂

  8. Gotta revisit this one, Dan. Thanks for the great review. I had forgotten what a decent flick this was. Not particularly a JJ fan but I did enjoy this. Nice work, bro!

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