Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai (1999)

Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch

“I’m your retainer. I don’t mean you no disrespect. Sorry, I don’t want to put too many holes in you.”

The Disc

Pretty sparse, to be honest, though they do include a trailer and outtakes – weirdly, the ‘outtakes’ are more like one deleted scene and an alternate take.

Why Did I Get This?

I honestly don’t remember buying this, though with a silenced pistol to my head I’d wager I bought it at the now-defunct Fopp in Sheffield back in the early 2000s.

As to why I bought it, I do love a good hitman movie (and some bad ones too). I knew Jim Jarmusch by reputation only at this point, and if I’m honest I still haven’t checked out as much of his back catalogue as I probably should have. Feel free to send recommendations in the comments section or on the socials.

I was also taken by the Samurai In The City pitch, albeit with firearms rather than katanas, and ancient Japanese culture is pretty fascinating, so I remember being curious to see how Forest Whitaker could bring that into modern times.

My memory of watching it is patchy, but I do remember being underwhelmed at the time. However, upon revisiting it a couple of decades down the line, I’d happily have a word with my younger self and explain all the reasons I was wrong.

Two trailers for this one, each offering a slightly different tone, but neither quite nailing it, in my opinion…

The Late Review

As always, the Late Review will contain spoilers for the film, so if you want to avoid them, scroll down to the next heading.

Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker), is a hitman who lives by the code of the Samurai and considers himself a retainer for mid-level mobster Louie (John Tormey). Little is known about him, other than he’s carried out 12 flawless hits for the mobster in the last four years, but after he assassinates a made man and leaves the daughter of the mob boss as a witness, he finds himself up against the entire local mafia family.

A code of honour is a funny thing. Not funny ha-ha, rather something you only hear in certain circles and the movies – more often than not, those circles involve criminality, and that’s right where we are from the off with Ghost Dog.

From the outset of this film, it’s clear we’re in for a melancholy ride, as a Forest Whitaker voiceover reads from the Hagakure – the ancient code of the Samurai – and explores the notion of death while surrounded by instruments of murder. And some pigeons.

Even the RZA soundtrack adds to the downbeat mood, never more so than during Ghost Dog’s many, many travelling sequences – as he walks through the night to find a suitable car to steal, Whitaker waves respectfully at a cemetery as he passes. A nice touch, showing he acknowledges the dead while (a) accepting that death is just the next step on life’s journey, and (b) on his way to shoot a gangster in the head.

Whitaker’s performance is superb in this, and it’s not so much about what he says (he doesn’t really talk that much), but the way he moves is utterly spellbinding. Watching him walk through the streets in the opening sequence, he melts into shadows, passes pedestrians who don’t even notice him, and when he’s driving, there’s a stillness and steely determination that never passes into a scowl, just a thoughtful, almost tranquil look.

Making notes during this, I lost track of the number of times I wrote ‘stillness’ and ‘movement’, or variations of those two words.

There are a lot of ‘getting places’ montages throughout the film, with Jarmusch filming Whitaker in lengthy walking and driving scenes while RZA’s beats create a mood, to the point where I reckon the film would be 20 minutes shorter if they’d cut from one location to the next. However, the destination isn’t really not the point – the journey is the point, and losing those 20 minutes would severely harm the finished product.

Away from the vehicular montages, Whitaker’s a big guy, and until Ghost Dog, I’d never thought of him as someone who could fulfil an action role. For a large percentage of this movie that holds up too, as he’s shown snoozing or reading, driving or sitting on a park bench eating an ice-cream.

But when the time comes for Ghost Dog to break out the weapons and get on the clock, it’s like watching a different person entirely. For the quieter, more predictable hits – such as the killing of Handsome Frank (Richard Portnow), which kickstarts the plot – he’s silent, steady and stealthy, but by the time he has to wipe out a mansion filled with mobsters – and even as he’s training on his rooftop – he’s a blur, moving methodically from kill to kill, not putting a foot wrong, and moving like a wraith.

Weirdly though, even the action sequences have a stillness about them that, frankly, haven’t been seen in cinemas since The Bourne Supremacy shook everything up. The geography of every assault is clear, you know who’s where and what’s at stake, and as frantic as the defences are, Whitaker provides a calm, still centre to focus the storm.

It’s breathtaking without being breathless, if that makes sense?

The film also goes out of its way to offer and highlight contrast between the new and the old – the mobsters consider themselves classy and timeless, but they’re badly organised and living on past glories while lamenting the changes going on in the city around them as newer gangs from different ethnic backgrounds render their code obsolete.

On a geeky note, I loved the fact that the mobsters all watched old-school Fleischer cartons, Felix The Cat, Woody Woodpecker and Betty Boop in their downtime, while the final scenes see Vargo’s daughter watching Itchy & Scratchy on a tiny screen in the back of her limo as she cements her place as the new head of the family.

Take that at face value and the mobsters are relics from a different age just watching relics from a different age to unwind, while the young blood barely notices a cartoon within a cartoon playing inches away from her. That’s fine, but look a little closer, and it seems like the old cartoons seem to be all about carefree folk and creatures just having fun, while the modern meta-cartoon sees the cat and mouse draw increasingly bigger weapons until the entire Earth is destroyed.

I’m not saying Jarmusch has managed to bring The Simpsons into a meditation on the futility of revenge and mutually-assured destruction, but… yeah, actually, I am saying that, and I think it’s a nice touch.

Interestingly though, Ghost Dog is also living in the past. He’s following an even more ancient code, but the difference is he has adapted to modern times and adopted its benefits, and more importantly, he knows that time is fleeting – everything and everyone will die, and in acknowledging that, he’s found peace in a world of violence.

Ghost Dog trains with swords and knives, but uses guns and gadgets to carry out his hits (including a groovy little electronic lockpick for stealing cars that 007 would be jealous of), and even carries his own mix CDs to play in the cars he steals on his many drives around the city.

The closest the mobsters get to embracing modern culture is acknowledging but mocking the names rap stars give themselves (while ignoring the fact they’ve got monikers like Handsome Frank) – that being said, Cliff Gorman’s senior mobster Sonny Valerio comes the closest to embracing hip-hop culture, singing and dancing to Public Enemy in his bathroom just before he’s killed by Ghost Dog.

That’s a laugh out loud moment, but just one of the gems of absurdity which pepper the film – this was a much funnier film than I remembered it being.

Take for example Ghost Dog’s best friend in the world – ice-cream man Raymond (Isaach de Bankolé), who only speaks French. The two men have lengthy conversations between themselves and a young girl named Pearline (Camille Winbush), in which neither understands the language of the other, but both manage to get the gist as the youngster watches on, bemused.

As if that’s not quirky enough, Raymond invites Ghost Dog to a nearby rooftop to show him something…

… a man is building a wooden boat from scratch on the roof of the neighbouring building. Inadvertently, the pair express the same sentiments and questions about his endeavour, before Ghost Dog heads off to work. It’s almost a throwaway scene, and it doesn’t really add anything to the story, but as a memorable if daft moment, and a meditative scene, it works for me.

Ghost Dog’s acceptance of change and death, learned from the Samurai code, is one of his biggest strengths. When faced with a new enemy, the mobsters immediately become combative. Weirdly, as one of the old mobsters is shot by Ghost Dog and bleeding out while escaping, he acknowledges the hitman is “sending us out the old way, like real fucking gangsters” – he’s at peace with death, not in the same way Ghost Dog is, but grateful that he’s gone down swinging.

As Ghost Dog faces down a younger guy wearing camouflage who almost walks into him in the street (RZA himself, listed in the credits as Samurai In Camo), as a viewer, you’re almost braced for a confrontation – call it the Pavlovian effect of too many gangster films. However, the pair pause instead, bow and share a few wise words in passing, then part as friends.

Speaking of friends, Pearline is an interesting young buddy for Ghost Dog. Clearly an intelligent child, but a child nonetheless, she reads beautiful paperback editions of Frankenstein, The Wind In The Willows and The Souls Of Black Folk, and could easily become one of those irritating movie kids who are wise beyond their years.

Thankfully, she never really veers into that territory, instead acting as a sounding board for Ghost Dog and Raymond – while she understands the words Ghost Dog is saying, she doesn’t really understand them (though they give the audience as much of an insight into his thoughts as his voiceover does), but she doesn’t understand Raymond at all either. Her understanding of Ghost Dog will be increased though, as he gives her a copy of Rashomon to read – the copy he took from the mobster’s daughter, and which she clearly won’t miss.

Just before he leaves her and walks to his certain death, she returns Rashomon and tells Ghost Dog she enjoyed it. In return, he gives her his copy of Hagakure, and as the film closes – after she’s seen him murdered and attempted to shoot Louie in retaliation – she’s seen sitting on the floor of her mother’s kitchen, utterly absorbed in the code of the Samurai and announcing in voiceover…

PEARLINE: “The end is important in all things.”

She’s right, of course.

Thoughts On The Film

Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai is about as laid back as a film about a hitman taking on the mafia can be, but also a touching and soulful meditation on life, death and assassination. It’s got an amazing soundtrack by RZA, and pretty much oozes cool.

Forest Whitaker gives what I’d consider a unique performance – I’m used to seeing him be cerebral, but never this quiet. That being said, he gives the action sequences a special kind of fluidity that, again, I’m not used to seeing from him, and I’d love to see him take on this kind of role more often.

There’s so much more I haven’t talked about – Ghost Dog’s barely-glimpsed background, his relationship with Louie, his little Samurai-style flourish when holstering his pistol, pigeons, mobsters’ views on racism and chauvinism, the encounter with a pair of hunters and a weird parallel with The Sopranos to name just a few topics. You ever see me in the pub, we can get into this for a few hours and try to do it justice.

It was nice to see Akira Kurosawa mentioned in the closing credits, and Jean-Pierre Melville too – I haven’t seen Le Samurai, but by all accounts I should.

In short, this was not what I expected from a hitman thriller at the time – I might have been expecting something closer to Leon, I guess. But even revisiting it, I had no recollection of it and didn’t know what to expect.

I’m so glad to have done so though.

Verdict

A Late Reviewer follower suggested on Twitter that this isn’t a young person’s film, and I think that’s probably fair – it’s certainly not a criticism either, and I definitely appreciated it a lot more this time round, probably 20 years after first watching it.

Go in with an open mind, and don’t expect a fast and furious hitman revenge thriller, and you’ll find something to enjoy here.

As I said earlier, the younger me was just plain wrong about Ghost Dog – this is a great film.

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