Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
First screened and reviewed in November 2000 / Most recently screened in February 2018
Director: Jim Jarmusch. Cast: Forest Whitaker, John Tormey, Cliff Gorman, Henry Silva, Isaach de Bankolé, Tricia Vessey, Camille Winbush, Victor Argo, Gene Ruffini. Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch.

Twitter Capsule: One-of-a-kind tone, style, and protagonist, with syncretic roots in several genres and cultures.

VOR:   Have you seen other movies about African American samurais, possibly schizophrenic, told with such wit, surprise, sorrow, and visual and sonic grace? No?

Photo © 1999 JVC/BAC Films/Canal Plus,
© 2000 Artisan Entertainment
The analogy doesn't feel totally convincing, but I'll make it anyway: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is the Being John Malkovich of the year 2000, an act of pure, unadulterated creativity that boasts its narrative gambles and poetic whimsy as badges of honor, even as raisons d'être. I'm new to Jarmusch's cinema, but one of the unlimited pleasures of Ghost Dog is the immediacy with which it spurred me to rent all of the director's earlier work, from the groundbreaking Stranger Than Paradise to 1996's experimental Western Dead Man. More on those movies when I get to them. If any of them turn out to be half as entrancing, as shocking, as joyfully confident as Ghost Dog, you'll be able to knock me over with a feather.

Forest Whitaker, without whom this film is barely imaginable, stars as Ghost Dog, a reclusive, literate, roof-dwelling oddball about whom I find it hard to say anything true. I almost wrote that he never cracks a smile, but he's actually quite friendly with Raymond (Isaach de Bankolé), the neighborhood ice-cream vendor, and Pearline (Camille Winbush), a local adolescent girl who shares Ghost Dog's avid interest in reading. If these scenes characterize Ghost Dog as some sort of gentle giant, I rush to inform you that when the big guy isn't poring over ancient texts of samurai protocol, he's kicking ass and taking names, John Woo-style, on behalf of Louie (John Tormey), a jovially pathetic mobster in a dingy urban jungle-gym that looks like New Jersey. Is Louie, then, Ghost Dog's boss? Not really. He happened to have saved the younger man's life eight years earlier by taking out some street punks who were beating Ghost Dog in an alley. In subsequent years, the poetic, ever-behooded black man has performed contract killings for the wheezy, jowly Italian-American. They never meet but communicate daily. By carrier pigeon.

Okay, okay. But just remember that a year ago, a plotline centering around a porthole into the brain of John Malkovich would have sounded like Saturday Night Live at its most desperately bizarre. Rather than deciding on our behalf how seriously we are to take Ghost Dog, Jarmusch and his collaborators serve up the tastiest kind of dish, a film that entertains handily as both a comedy and a mob drama but yields astonishing answers to any sociological, mythic, or political pressures you might apply to the story. Does it matter that Ghost Dog acts obediently, Charlie's Angel-style, to a white male who doesn't even show his face to him? Sure, and the fact that Louie's mob superiors (a hysterical bunch played principally by Cliff Gorman, Henry Silva, and a skeletal Gene Ruffini) order Ghost Dog's death after his innocent encounter with Silva's sexy white daughter only stokes the flames of such a race-conscious interpretation. Does the screwball comedy of Ghost Dog's conversations with Raymond—the former speaks only English, the latter only [subtitled] French, and the two frequently but unknowingly repeat one another word for word—resonate with the film's meditation on cross-cultural exchange? Absolutely.

Do you have to entertain consciously these deeper thematic questions in order to enjoy the film? Absolutely not—you can merely laugh out loud at the world cinema's first assassination through a sink drain, or marvel at Whitaker's astonishingly graceful rehearsals of samurai swordplay. However affecting in films like The Crying Game or Bird, Whitaker's is not a physique that immediately conjures the adjective "balletic." It's refreshing, though, not only to see an underused actor display unanticipated gifts in an utterly unique role, but also to see that movies written as star vehicles don't have to crumble around them. (See Joan Allen in The Contender for an example of a star acing a tailor-made role in a movie that's not sure what to do with any of the other characters.) Whitaker combines everything Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne were supposed to be in The Matrix—authoritative, athletic, mysterious, principled, and bad-ass—but he doesn't waste anytime winking at how cool he is, or how cool he expects we think he is.

As forceful an impression as Whitaker makes in this part, he doesn't have to pull the weight of the whole movie. The supporting cast, of whom de Bankolé is the only actor I recognized, is uniformly excellent, as is the cinematography of the indomitable Robby Müller. The cameraman's clever use of shadow and unparalleled gift for making colors more beautiful by washing them out makes Ghost Dog's streets and sidewalks a convincingly mythic landscape, majestic and treacherous. Between this film and the very different Dancer in the Dark, Müller has shot the year's two most improbably gorgeous movies, as well as—at least so far—the two best.

Finally, I would be remiss not to acknowledge that you can close your eyes during Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai and have a fully satisfying experience of the vibrant score by Wu-Tang Clan's frontman, the RZA. Jarmusch only wrote the script after listening to the music he commissioned from the RZA, and the collaboration of these two men—the boomer auteur without a hit to his name and the firebrand intelligence behind one of rap's most successful and compulsively listenable acts—represents exactly the sort of oddball pairing that Ghost Dog so often showcases in its plot. The match proves made in heaven, however, and literally so in the scenes where RZA's heavy but carefully modulated percussion beats beneath the image of Ghost Dog's passenger pigeon gliding through the sky. It's hard not to view these images and others like it as deft send-ups of John Woo's fascination with doves, though Jarmusch and Müller reproduce the beauty of those shots even as they skewer them. The first pigeon-flight scene is as crudely breathtaking as American Beauty's now-famous cinéma de trash-bag, but whereas that Oscar-winning fable seems a bit more limited with repeated viewings, I suspect Ghost Dog will grow only more enticing the more you watch. Jim Jarmusch has made a film of universal appeal about themes of boundary-crossing, the testing of new identities, and the melancholy attendant to the passing away of old codes and character types. The only melancholy I felt when the film concluded, however, was that it had to end at all. A

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