Blu-ray Review: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Monday, November 23rd, 2020  

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

Studio: The Criterion Collection

Nov 17, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


“It’s poetry … the poetry of war.”

Communication – and the breakdowns therein – permeates throughout Ghost Dog, one of filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s many masterpieces. After revisiting the film for the first time in over a decade, this is the theme that registered most of all. Part of that is the film itself, and part of that is the Criterion Collection edition and the special features attached to it.

Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) is an assassin for the Italian mob. More accurately, he’s an assassin for one particular Italian mobster whom he’s chosen to serve as retainer as a reward for saving his life. Louie (John Tormey) pays Ghost Dog once a year on the first day of autumn and hires him through carrier pigeons (or passenger pigeons) any time a job needs doing. To kick-start the plot, Ghost Dog carries out his orders and assassinates a made man who’s been sleeping with the boss’ daughter. There weren’t supposed to be witnesses, but the daughter hopped off the bus she was expected to be riding and returned. Thus, she saw the act (and lent Ghost Dog a copy of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s Rashomon) and the mob decides Ghost Dog has to go – through no fault of his own.

This sets off a chase to find the assassin who lives on a rooftop with his pigeon compatriots. Gangsters encounter various people in their search, including a contemporary Nobody (Gary Farmer) resurrected from Jarmusch’s prior narrative feature Dead Man.

Eventually, the mobsters find Ghost Dog’s pigeons while he’s away and they murder them. This puts them in his sights, and he delivers a message from the Hagakure (the book of the samurai by Yamamoto Tsunetomo) that confuses all but Ray Vargo (Henry Silva), the boss whose daughter witnessed the initial murder. He understands the poetry of Ghost Dog’s missive and that war has been declared. Despite the certain doom that follows, had there been a better attempt at communication between parties this may all have been avoided.

This is further amplified by the quieter moments away from the action. Ghost Dog’s best friend is Raymond (Isaach De Bankole), the owner of a local ice cream truck. Ghost Dog speaks only English and Raymond knows only French, and yet they effortlessly communicate with one another as if spoken language can only do so much. In one moment, Raymond takes his friend to a rooftop and shows him a man building a boat on another rooftop. They yell across to ask him about the project, but the man replies in Spanish, a third language, and yet there’s a bond between the three. A shared moment in time. They understand the beauty without translating the specific words.

Additionally, Ghost Dog strikes up a friendship with Pearline (Camille Winbush), a young neighborhood girl who is also a voracious reader. Her curiosity pushes her to ask Ghost Dog questions and they quickly bond over a love of literature despite obviously coming from different worlds. Similarly, Ghost Dog’s entire essence comes from an innate connection to a world incredibly foreign from his own – the way of the samurai.

As much as the film navigates the complexities of communication in addition to being the sheer personification of cool, it is also exploring the decay of old traditions. Ghost Dog follows samurai code in late 1990s America, for one. It’s an idiosyncratic trait but is steeped in reverence for a discipline that has otherwise evaporated. The mobsters opposite Ghost Dog are watching their own traditions – their own way – erode in real time. They can’t make rent on their club, all their houses are for sale, and they cling to their garish fashion as a token of remembrance of better times. Then, as shit hits the fan and people start dying, they treat it like a positive; the violence makes them feel alive one more time before they die

While the film is certainly steeped in the tea of the crime/gangster genre, it’s not surprising that Jarmusch’s vision is decidedly off-kilter from general expectations associated with that brand of movie. Dead Man was hardly a typical Western just like Only Lovers Left Alive simply used a vampire motif to explore something deeper about relationships and Down by Law is a dissection of male friendship in the guise of a jailbreak film. Ghost Dog has the hallmarks of a gritty, grimy gangster movie but imbues it with a softness that is too often absent. Luc Besson’s Leon: The Professional does this a bit but is far more surface-level than Jarmusch’s film.

Whitaker is the heartbeat at the center of Ghost Dog. While he was recognized by the Academy Awards for his more boisterous portrayal of Idi Amin a few years later in The Last King of Scotland, he delivers a much more subtle and nuanced performance as the nearly stoic assassin who blends samurai style with hip hop taste. It’s a career-topping performance from an actor with no shortage of greatness on is resume.

As has become tradition for most of Criterion’s Jarmusch releases, there is a fantastic extra where he fields a variety of questions from fans. It’s audio-only from an undisclosed location. Consider it the closest thing to a Jarmusch-hosted podcast that you’ll find, and it’s an absolute delight. He reiterates that he never revisits his films – hasn’t watched Ghost Dog since 1999 – but still offers amusing insights and anecdotes as well as his memory allows. He discusses some of the films that served as specific influences on Ghost Dog (Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai) while also discussing various samurai movies that he loves. He acknowledges that he’s been widely influenced by the films he’s seen within his own filmmaking, but adds he’s not analytical enough to know exactly how it manifests.

Jarmusch also talks about his relationship with rapper RZA who scored the movie, and how they would often meet late at night to go over the recordings as they were completed. It’s an idiosyncratic partnership and it fit the movie perfectly. Additionally, there is a video essay with archive footage of RZA exploring his process in scoring Ghost Dog.

There is also an interview with stars Whitaker and de Bankole moderated by film professor and historian Michael B. Gillespie recorded remotely (thanks COVID-19) over the summer where they discuss their experiences with the film and their own readings of what has lasted.

The long-awaited Criterion edition (it has been teased for years) is a dream release. It features accompanying essays from Jonathan Rosenbaum and Greg Tate, an interview with Shifu Shi Yan Ming of the USA Shaolin Temple, archive interviews, and a book of excerpts from the Hagakure. It’s a must for any Jarmusch fan, but also for anyone who loves a good genre deconstruction.

(www.criterion.com/films/31032-ghost-dog-the-way-of-the-samurai)




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