Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
Review by Jeremy Kleinman | posted September 5, 2000
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The Movie

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is an extremely original but somewhat odd film. It seeks to superimpose the ways of the ancient samurai with the present day in the tale of a loner who works as a hitman for the local mafia family. Day in and day out, Ghost Dog, the film's protagonist played by Forrest Whitaker likes his life according to the ancient precepts of the Hagakure, a book written by a samurai in the 1750's as a guide to samurai living. Throughout the film, Ghost Dog recites portions of this work, describing his current state and his next move and Director Jim Jarmusch puts these passages on screen for the audience to read.

The film feels somewhat slow-moving throughout much of its first hour, only to seem to reach a climax 30 minutes before it actually ends. The film is aided by some interesting characters. While the mafia characters are somewhat identical to those depicted in countless other films, (with the exception of the strange fascination with cartoon violence that each member shares), the character of Ghost Dog is quite an intriguing one, especially in his interaction with those around him. He reacts very differently to many of the different characters he encounters and shows a side of violence and a side of peaceful sadness in everything he does. In addition, his best friend, a Haitian ice cream salesman is another thoroughly enjoyable character, and the scenes which pass between the two, with the ice cream man only speaking French and Ghost Dog only speaking English work well, especially because, without knowing it, the men find a common understanding so often. In addition, the scenes in which Ghost Dog commits murder range from the banal to the intricate, and some of the scenes, especially the one in which he employs the bathroom sink are quite impressive.

Jarmusch puts in a number of thematic elements which are obviously symbollic, but whose ultimate symbolism is less clear. Besides the constant presence of literal cartoon violence (Itchy and Scratchy from "The Simpsons" make multiple appearances in the film), there is the recurring presence of the book "Rashamon," which is transferred from character to character. An extremely powerful book, it took a look at a singular event from a number of personal perspectives. Whether Jarmusch is suggesting that we are only getting one perspective on the events and that another would be greatly divergent, or if there is some other meaning is left for the viewer to determine.

Finally, Whittaker, though not necessarily resembling the hit man type does an extremely good job in this film in establishing a complex character who seems to be in two different worlds simultaneously, yet who completely resembles neither. While this internal conflict appears to make the character and the performance a hard sell, it ultimately pays off, as Whittaker really shines in the film.

The Picture

Ghost Dog is presented in anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. All in all the film looks good, with a few specks and other imperfections showing up from time to time on the screen, but never in a way which lessens enjoyment of the film. The colors of the film come through well, and there is little wavering.

The Sound

Ghost Dog is presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital Sound. The film uses the superior sound well, with a mix of dialogue, sound effects and music, the majority of which was presented by founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan, The RZA. The sound comes through well, particularly in the presentation of the music of the film, coming through strong at times and weak but effective at other times when the film's dramatic themes call for it.

Bonus Materials

The Ghost Dog DVD comes with a fair share of bonus materials, including a 20 minute documentary featurette, 5 short outtakes from the film, a "Cakes" music video, extremely extensive cast and crew bios, and six television spots and trailers for the film.

Most impressive of the materials is "The Ghost Dog Oddessy," the 20 minute featurette, which includes a number of scenes from the film and extensive interviews with the panel of Jarmusch, Whittaker, and The RZA, covering a range of topics from the origins of the Hagakure, the character of Ghost Dog, the creative process behind the film, Jarmusch's image of the film and its casting, and the music which plays an important role at constantly establishing the themes of the film. The featurette takes an extensive look at The RZA's musical background and the formulation and origins of the Wu Tang Clan and the emergence of the RZA as an artist scoring the film. The three discuss, with some detail, a number of the central themes of the film, and to a certain extent, the conversation seems to make up for the lack of a commentary track, always a lamentable omission with a film which has a good amount beneath its surface.

The trailers and television spots are also fairly interesting, from the perspective they offer on the many ways in which this film was marketed, as those marketing the film had to deal head on with the number of contrasting thematic elements present in the film.

Finally, although three of the four outtakes are just alternate versions of scenes from the film, the first of the outtakes involves an accountant who meets with the mafia heads to discuss their financial dealings and tries to convince them that they should file bankruptcy. Such a scene would obviously have been somewhat out of place in the film, and it is clear why it was cut, but its inclusion is enjoyable nevertheless.

Final Thoughts

Fans of Jarmusch will likely not be disappointed by this film. It demonstrates his typical methodic style and has interesting characters and an interesting plot. For those who are not fans of Jarmusch's work, this film is a slightly riskier endeavor. While the modern-day samurai plot was previously touched upon in "Ronin" here, the typical mafia characters seem to break up the story and make it a bit more disjointed and a bit less compelling. Nevertheless, if one has the time and interest, the film is worth renting.

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