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Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai - The Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection // R // November 17, 2020
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted February 8, 2021 | E-mail the Author

When the mob makes the risky decision to take out a made man, Louie (John Tormey) turns to the one guy he knows he can trust: the quiet, eccentric Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker). Ghost Dog carries himself less like an assassin and more like a samurai, following the tenets of the Hagakure, right down to his belief that he is Louie's retainer (follower of a lord) after Louie saved his life years earlier. He can only be contacted by carrier pigeon, and his closest friend is an ice cream vendor named Raymond (Isaach De Bankole) who speaks French, a language he doesn't understand. The hit itself goes smoothly, but nobody involved expected Louise (Tricia Vessey), daughter of big boss Vargo (Henry Silva), to be a first-person witness to the murder. Worried about being implicated in the hit, Vargo orders his men to kill Ghost Dog, setting off a circuitous chain of events he could not have foreseen.

Anyone who has seen Jim Jarmusch's work understands that the soul of his films exists in their vibe, their attitude. He has a deadpan sense of humor that frequently lies in rhythms rather than punchlines, stemming from well-defined, idiosyncratic characters connecting or conflicting with one another. Ghost Dog is simultaneously one of his most accessible and least explainable films. Despite the use of the Hagakure, the film is not really about the philosophies in the book so much as it is about how Ghost Dog embodies them. It seems unlikely that Jarmusch developed the film with any kind of thesis or thematic underpinning, and yet Ghost Dog is a rich and layered movie, a jazz-like combination of samurai and gangster movies from all over the world.

The easiest layer to analyze -- or maybe just the most straightforward -- is the collection of cinematic influences that Jarmusch is bringing to the table here. Obviously, Akira Kurosawa plays a big part, not just in the film's samurai influences, but also the appearance of Ryunosuke Akutagawa's Rashomon, which Louise is reading when Ghost Dog first sees her. There is also an element of Le Samourai, Jean-Pierre Melville's 1967 neo-noir starring Alain Delon as a French hitman who also has an affinity for birds. Finally, there are multiple references to Seijun Suzuki's gonzo gangster movie Branded to Kill, a dizzying story about the third-best hitman in the world and his subsequent unraveling. Unlike, say, Quentin Tarantino, Jarmusch's blending of influences is stylistically seamless; the homages may be on-the-nose, but they all feel fully filtered through the director's contemporary-cool NYC sensibilities.

These elements are fused with something like a Scorsese gangster movie, injected with a heavy dose of comedy. While the samurai/hitman material is mostly played straight, Jarmusch spends most of the mobster material subverting expectations and having fun with conventions. When the mobsters discover that Louie's go-to guy is called "Ghost Dog," it inspires a discussion about the similarity between names in gangster rap and the Native American community. Various underlings dispatched to take care of Ghost Dog discover other people in his stead and get wrapped up in comic mishaps trying to figure out how to proceed. There is an extended scene in which one of the men has to catch Ghost Dog's carrier pigeon in order to send a message back. Meanwhile, Vargo sits around doing very little, showing a hilariously odd fascination in classic Fleischer cartoons. As with so many things in Jarmusch's films, these scenes are simultaneously satisfying as mobster movie material and as something entirely different, with each member of the film's extensive supporting cast turning in an equally memorable performance.

All of this material is finally synthesized and orbits around Ghost Dog himself, played with both a stillness and a surprising element of warmth by Forest Whitaker. There's probably a whole movie in his relationship with a young girl named Pearline (Camille Winbush), who he meets while waiting on a park bench, and his aforementioned friendship with Raymond, with whom he simultaneously can and cannot communicate. Above all of these intersecting threads, throughout the movie, there is also the music of The RZA, who has somehow come up with the kind of music that fits all of the elements of this movie at once. Ghost Dog is many things -- funny, cool, dramatic, thrilling, intense -- and in some ways, the fact that it can all mingle in the same movie is arguably the thesis here. Ghost Dog himself contains multitudes, yet remains zen on the outside. The movie, one of Jarmusch's many masterpieces, is the same way.

The Blu-ray
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai gets a pretty straightforward Blu-ray cover, which is basically just a zoomed-in version of the film's original theatrical poster art with a couple of bird silhouettes as a backdrop, with the title treatment scrawled out by hand. On the reverse of the sleeve, there is another image of birds silhouetted against the sky. Not one of the company's most impressive designs. The one-disc release comes in one of their standard Scanavo Blu-ray cases, with not one but two booklets. The larger one features essays by critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and Greg Tate, as well as an interview with Jarmusch, while the latter is a miniaturized and truncated version of Ghost Dog's treasured Hagakure by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, featuring all of the text quotations seen in the film.

The Video and Audio
Ghost Dog has been given a new 4K master by Criterion, presented here in 1.85:1 1080p AVC, with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. The results are predictably impressive, with the image offering perfectly-modulated colors and depth that make the movie look as if it were brand-new. Film grain is rendered so finely that it is nearly invisible in motion, and although some scenes appear on the darker side, with heavy shadows, it is pretty evident watching the film that the look is always by design. The 5.1 soundtrack is equally good, with RZA's score providing the backbone of an impressive track full of stylish sound effects, faithfully rendered and crystal-clear dialogue, and various other Jarmuschian music cues. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.

The Extras
First off, almost all of the extras that appeared on Artisan's 2000 DVD edition of Ghost Dog have been ported to this release. They include "The Odyssey: A Journey Into the Life of a Samurai" documentary (21:30), a collection of deleted scenes/outtakes (5:25), and an isolated score (presented in Dolby Digital 2.0). The two extras that have gone MIA are a music video for Kool G Rap's "Cakes," featuring RZA, and some TV spots.

As Jarmusch fans can almost certainly guess, the centerpiece extra on the disc is one of his traditional Criterion audio Q&A sessions (1:24:08), in which he answers questions sent in by fans. As always, Jarmusch gives funny, entertaining, and insightful responses to every question, and the questions themselves (which Jarmusch curates) are equally good, which makes the session better. There are too many stories to mention, but he has great stories about developing the script for Whitaker, Henry Silva locking his copy of the script in his car trunk, his respect for teeangers, the music he's been listening to during COVID, Lee Marvin movies, and more. This is one of those extras where I'd argue my recommendation or summary just isn't necessary; it's far more entertaining to listen to Jim. The second major new extra is a conversation between Forest Whitaker and Isaach De Bankole, moderated by scholar Michael B. Gillespie (29:57), recorded over the internet. They chat about first hearing about the film and the process of working with Jarmusch both before and during production, hearing the soundtrack, their thoughts on the blending of styles and cultures in the finished product, and their feelings on the legacy and endurance of the movie.

Beyond these pieces with the writer/director and stars, there are three more new supplements. First, there are two other new interviews, with casting director Ellen Lewis (15:32), and one with Shifu Shi Yan Ming (5:36), founder of the USA Shaolin Temple. Lewis talks about how she arrived at casting as a career, and her process for casting generally, as well as her specific process with Jarmusch. As the script was written with Whitaker and De Bankole in mind, most of the focus goes toward the mobsters. She also talks about her relationship with actors in general. A nice little piece, consisting entirely of archival images and footage from the film. Ming, interviewed in his studio, talks about moving to America, his relationship with RZA and Jarmusch, working on Ghost Dog, and his overall philosophy about life. Ming is a very enthusiastic speaker, and has a unique perspective on the movie and Jarmusch. Finally, "Flying Birds: The Music of Ghost Dog" (14:47) is an examination of RZA's music for the movie, by filmmaker Daniel Raim, which uses archival interview footage of RZA and clips from the film to help illustrate how the score was written and how it draws from various periods in his career to fit various purposes in the film.

An original theatrical trailer for Ghost Dog is also included.

Ghost Dog is a very cool movie, one that comes close to defying explanation but which makes perfect sense when you see it on screen. Criterion's new Blu-ray features excellent A/V and a really great new Q&A with the director, among several insightful new and archival extras. Highly, highly recommended.

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