Underrated: Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai

Yep. There’s a movie called Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, and it isn’t terrible. In fact, there are some days where I rank it as the greatest Jim (Broken Flowers) Jarmusch film of them all. The movie, released in 1999, was DOA in terms of box office despite fair reviews from critics. I’m guessing that the title didn’t do much good for the film. There’s something about the title that makes people scoff.
Especially the crowd who would go see a Jim Jarmusch film. Oh, and by the way, it is pronounced Jar-Mush, not Jar-Moosh. He says so himself.
Most Jarmusch films appeal to the “art crowd” or what some would refer to as “young hipsters.” Considering that Jarmusch helped solidify the hipster movement of the early nineties, I’ll bet that this extremely specific crowd was a purposeful decision. I mean…look at him.
However, Ghost Dog is a bit of a departure for Jarmusch in terms of both style and content. Absent is the long, coffeehouse conversation. Absent is the disjointed plot and Tom Waits-style jazz soundtrack. Jarmusch’s film feels completely different from the rest of his filmography. There’s action, emotion, narrative arc, and plot. It doesn’t sound like much, but that is a lot to take on when most of your movies are like this.
What makes Forrest Whitaker’s characterization of Ghost Dog different from most Jarmusch protagonists is that he feels like he was around before the movie started. That also doesn’t sound like much, but lets break it down: John Lurie’s character in Stranger than Paradise clearly did not exist until the start of the movie. No events prior to the movie are made mention of. There is no weight on his shoulders of any kind. He is a blank slate as the movie begins, as is Johnny Depp’s William Blake in Dead Man. Most Jarmusch leading men start the movie as empty, boring people who are thrust into situations out of their control. They become characters over the course of the movie, but they are almost never characters to begin with.
In other words, Jarmusch men are usually round, yet static protagonists.

Jarmusch on the left. Tom Waits on the right.

In the case of Ghost Dog, he is a man who has had a long, difficult life. From the moment Ghost Dog arrives on screen, it is clear that he has a past full of intrigue. He has a great interest in the Far East, and reads all the books he can find. He lives alone, trains alone, works alone, and yet everybody seems to know him. His best friend speaks French, and neither men can speak each other’s language.
Ghost Dog doesn’t just have the ability to vanish, but he seems to never materialize at all.
What Whitaker has done with this character is interesting. Instead of playing the role as a weighted down, pained figure, Whitaker faces the role as a content, working-class day laborer. He goes about his day by a routine as any other man would do. He is not an eccentric. He trains and reads in the morning, eats his lunch, learns who he must kill by passenger pigeon by afternoon, and by night assassinates those who get in the way of a viscous Italian gang.
Normal stuff.
Whitaker could have easily played the mysterious loner card. You know the drill, a man who plays music and dances by himself, or writes in a journal out loud so we can understand his inner demons. Jarmusch could have directed him with those wide angle lenses all up in his face like he is a tortured soul. But instead we get a conservatively filmed, naturally acted movie about a guy who is just doing his job.
In fact, it doesn’t even occur to Ghost Dog that he is lonely until a little girl reminds him. After this, he seems to have a mild interest in making friends, but this wears off pretty quickly. No, Ghost Dog doesn’t want friends, he just wants to do his job.
Over the course of the film, however, Ghost Dog does realize the err of his ways and decides that maybe it’s the Italian gang that is evil, not half of New York. So what we get is an exciting third act that includes butterflies, sniper rifles, murder, shootouts, car chases, disguises, dramatic deaths, friendships, and this truly outstanding scene. It’s amazing what Jarmusch is able to accomplish with this film. All at once he is making a true samurai film, a comedy, a racial tolerance film, an action film, a philosophical film, and an intimate character study. Within the a ten minute scene, an old Italian gangster does a broad comedy bit where he raps some Flava Flav lyrics, Ghost Dog kills a man in cold blood, a little girl learns the meaning of “Emptiness is Form”, and a man kills a female cop because, as he puts it, “They want to be equal, I make them equal.”

Now that’s a lot of stuff to think about for a movie called Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai


   [For further viewing, watch Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, a film that is surprisingly heartfelt given the director’s dependably cold reputation.]

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  • I need to watch this movie again. It sounds better when you can hear it, I bet.

  • Man Tom Waits is so weird. That picture reminded me.

    Good review son. *Raises Glass*

  • Just wanted to give your blog two thumbs up, great job. I taped Ghost Dog on VHS many moons ago. I was still a kid, but it left an important mark on me. Not so long after, I bought a copy of Hagakure, and read it many times since.

    It's funny, but I don't know anybody who's ever seen this film besides me. It's the same with Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, another undeservedly obscure film.

    Anyway, two thumbs up from Portugal. Rui