“The Way of the Samurai is found in death… and every day without fail one should consider himself as dead.”
The rooftops of an anonymous inner city are the last place one would expect to find a man who follows bushido, “the way of the warrior” and the honor code of the samurai. One certainly wouldn’t expect that samurai to be a modestly overweight black man.
However, Jim Jarmusch’s “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” stars Forrest Whitaker (“Platoon” and “Good Morning Vietnam”) as just such a modern-day samurai. In this intriguing mix of Japanese samurai films and American mob movies, Ghost Dog is an assassin who follows the ancient ways of feudal Japan while performing flawless hits for his master, a minor mob boss who saved his life years ago.
During one of Ghost Dog’s hits, he is witnessed by a young woman who happens to be the daughter of a major mob boss. He spares her, and the word gets back around that he was there. This is a major offense to “the family,” and soon a whole bumbling lot of small-time crooks are scouring the city to find and eliminate the mysterious rooftop-dwelling assassin.
Unfortunately, Ghost Dog’s master has sold him out, telling his associates as much as he knows about this strange and dangerous man. What becomes of a samurai’s loyalty when his sworn master is the source of his own mortal danger?
The greatest accomplishment of “Ghost Dog” is its ability to make you believe. Despite the admittedly fantastic premise of this film, within five minutes of the opening credits it all seems very natural. Jarmusch, famed for his earlier works like “Dead Man” and “Night on Earth,” easily creates a world where an amazing degree of anachronism can exist.
Adding to the strange world of Ghost Dog is Raymond who sells ice cream out of a truck and speaks only French. Ghost Dog doesn’t speak a word of French, yet they manage to remain best friends, playing chess and somehow understanding each other despite the language barrier. “Ghost Dog” is by no means a comedy, but there’s something undeniably funny about how well Ghost Dog’s words and Raymond’s subtitles match.
Throughout the film, Ghost Dog reads from the book “Hagakure,” and passages from it are provided as the narration for his life. The book contains the philosophies of a samurai who lived during a time of peace, and reflects a man’s search to maintain tradition in a world that is no longer his own. The parallels are not subtle.
Believing this modern samurai tale is a leap of faith, and in the hands of a lesser star this movie could have been a spectacular failure. Fortunately, Forrest Whitaker shows just how much Hollywood underestimates his talent.
In a manner reminiscent of the more mainstream “Batman” and “The Crow,” the lasting impression of this film is the starring character, a man of principal who has found something to guide his existence and follows it with 100 percent determination. He’s confident and smooth, and his personality is what makes the film work.
The soundtrack of “Ghost Dog” is just what it should be: real rap, not the watered-down dance mix Puff Daddy BMW-driving overproduced fluff that passes for rap on the charts today. The score is supplied by RZA, producer for the infamous Wu-Tang Clan, and the boys of Wu-Tang even make an appearance on the soundtrack. When Ghost Dog slides a CD in the stereo as he drives, the music fits the scene perfectly without seeming like a tacked-on advertisement for the soundtrack.
“Ghost Dog” is an attempt to fuse samurai film, mob movies, and a little bit of western into a modern setting, and it works because it has no doubt that it will work. No one exactly fits the stereotypes, and occasional interludes of comic relief keep the film from taking itself so seriously that it collapses in on itself. You’ve seen nothing like it before, and you’ll want to see it again.
“Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai”Written and Directed by Jim JarmuschStarring Forrest WhitakerArtisan Entertainment