Directed Viewing: “Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai”

Hello and welcome to Directed Viewing, my series of pieces charting my efforts in filling in gaps in my cinematic knowledge by watching all the films in a specific director’s filmography, usually in chronological order. We are neck deep in the films of Jim Jarmusch, which so far has been the definition of a Sisyphean task. Okay, okay, it’s not been that bad, but certainly I’ve had more chores than fun in this mad dash across the landscape of 80s and 90s indie cinema.

That all changes today, though!

Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai (1999)

In the middle of this movie I stopped and tweeted “If you like Drive, you REALLY need to see Ghost Dog,” and that remains the most concise way I know to talk about it. That comes with some baggage, perhaps, so I’ll go into more detail, but if you like thinky low-key character crime meditations, Ghost Dog is among the best. Go watch it. Seriously. I cannot recommend it highly enough. I won’t even mind you putting off reading this until you do.

Ghost Dog is the story of a man who goes by the same name, played with stoic aplomb by Forest Whitaker. He’s an assassin by trade but a samurai by philosophy, spending most of his time caring for the pigeons he uses to communicate contracts and reading from the Hagakure, an 18th century text on the bushido code. There are obvious parallels to Alain Delon’s assassin in Le Samourai, but if you’re interested in this type of movie you’ve already seen that one, right? Because it’s kind of the gold standard all these movies aspire to. So I won’t go out of my way to belabor the similarities of tone and characterization.

Ghost Dog believes himself to be the retainer to local mobster Louie, a member of a group of men who are all broken down and old, past their time and desperate in a dangerous, doomed sort of way. Louie hires him to kill a mobster who is sleeping with the daughter of the mob boss, which he does with ruthless efficiency. Unfortunately, the daughter is there during the hit and sees Ghost Dog, leading the mob boss to decide to kill our hero to cover their involvement.

So begins the fairly straightforward plot, but like so many of the films in this sub-sub-genre, what really matters are the people and characters involved. The mobsters are almost comical, disbelieving of Ghost Dog’s seemingly gimmicky adherence to rules of conduct and behavior that dictate how he goes about his assassinations. As the mob boss incredulously asks Louie when he admits he doesn’t know how to find Ghost Dog: “Did you just say he contacts you through a bird? Did I just hear you say that?”

The unlikeliest of warrior heroes.

But in reality both the mobsters and Ghost Dog are spiraling the same drain of irrelevance. The mobsters swagger with the knowledge that they’re the last generation of men who remember what they used to be, while Ghost Dog has the resolve of a man who knows he is part of a culture that is long dead and gone. There’s a certain peace to that knowledge, backed up with intercut excerpts in title card and narration form, from the Hagakure as Ghost Dog reflects on the samurai ideals of battle and death and acceptance.

He spends most of his time in peaceful pursuits, his one friend an ice dream truck driver who only speaks French but the two seem to presume correctly what each other are saying mostly out of charmingly surreal narrative conceit. Ghost Dog also meets a young girl with a love of books while hanging out in the park, offering her various samurai tales. It’s not quite an apprenticeship, but it’s obvious how much he craves the idea of passing on his belief system to another person who could potentially understand him.

It’s a unique tone for the movie to take, firmly entrenched in the kinds of ideas of honor and legacy that are cornerstones of both samurai and gangster movies of almost all kinds, but coached in terms that are more relevant to the landscape of 90s urban crime violence. Ghost Dog is an aberration, but we see signs of African-American gangster archetypes existing in this world and there’s a pretty incredible hip-hop heavy soundtrack by RZA. The pastiche is unique for this type of movie, as singular and surprising as Drive‘s (back to that old touchstone) reliance on 80s pop music and 70s retro fashion.

No quip here, just genuinely love the way this scene is shot. Great entrances and action.

The bulk of the movie unfolds with the mobsters trying to locate Ghost Dog, but when they do it’s a quick and bloody affair, an assassin versus a bunch of old men who are more threat than danger. It leads to predictable results, but the surprises are buried in the nuance in stories like this–the palpable sense of regret Ghost Dog has for having to fight them all off, the last-stand bravado of the mobsters, the feeling that everyone wishes it won’t go the way they all know it will. But unlike movies like Drive or Le Samourai or even last year’s excellent The American (which hasn’t been mentioned mostly because Le Samourai did all the relevant things it does first) what Ghost Dog has going for it is Jim Jarmusch.

I’ve ragged on Jarmusch pretty heavily for his reliance upon meandering storytelling and often too-dry humor as a crutch for his usual lack of narrative drive. But what doesn’t hold up when spread too thin becomes the tweak on an otherwise good genre movie to launch it into otherwise unimaginable heights. It’s not enough to base a movie on, but when put in service of an actual movie with some meat it becomes the redemptive element to this whole project. I’ve been admittedly kind of regretting ever stepping into whole mess as it’s gotten harder and harder to muster the enthusiasm for each new movie, but this is the first time I’ve actually seen the evolution of the artist so blatantly on display while doing this project. It’s honestly a little magical.

That is, until next week, when I get to take a second look at Coffee and Cigarettes. More on that when it comes.

These three alone would make the funniest mobster movie of all time. Comedy GOLD.

But to be fair, Jarmusch has always constructed well made movies, just always about infuriating subject matter. Turning his attentions to something a little more relatable has done wonders, and Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai is a movie that I was excited about finally seeing and only got more excited as the movie went on. It’s a special film that you see and come out of feeling ecstatic and enthusiastic about movies in general, but Ghost Dog was that movie for me. If nothing else comes out of this project, I urge you to seek it out and watch it. It is that rarest of gems, a genuinely Great Movie.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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