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Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai
* * * * Stars
Forest Whitaker stars in this amazingly good character driven film. Whitaker is Ghost Dog, a New York hitman who lives by the code of the ancient samurai. When a job for the mob goes wrong they decide to cut their losses and put a hit out on him. But since he's a samurai and not just a normal hitman this proves to be a huge mistake for them.
This film really works on three levels. First is the duality of the film's coolness factor and the strength of Whitaker's performance. Whitaker radiates cool in this film. In every scene and every frame, through both action and inaction we know he is being of awesome power. His performance is note perfect. There's one scene where a grievous wrong has been done and we see Whitaker absorb the devastation, then he narrates that when a making decision it should be done in the space of seven breathes. Once that decision is made and we realize Whitaker's full fury will now be unleashed upon his enemies, it sends a tingle up the spine of the viewer. Whitaker's resolve shines through the screen and through his subsequent acting the pace builds until we reach the film's ultimate battle, which is a really, really good fight scene-one of the most satisfying ever filmed.
Furthermore we have the film's philosophy. This aspect of the film is the most important of all even more so than Whitaker's superb performance. As the film's tale unfolds we do need learn about the Way of the Samurai through the eastern philosophy Whitaker espouses as he narrates the film. Often times the film breaks from the action just to linger on the narration and let in sink in. It's a technique that helps set the tone of the film and makes it a completely absorbing experience.
The third thing that the film does really well is it is character and not plot driven. At least just as much time is spent following Whitaker through his day to day life as he interacts with people in his community as is spent on the action parts of the plot. In many ways the film works as commentary on the values of modern society. The scenes with Whitaker and his best friend, a Haitian ice cream vendor provide this film with true heart and soul. We see repeatedly that the two friends can understand each other because they are at peace with the world and in tune with their surroundings, so that their bond transcends mere language. Ghost Dog also has a touching relationship with a young girl that he hopes to impart his code to so that she may one day have the tools of knowledge necessary to escape life in the inner city. These are characters that would have been interesting a two-hour film just living their lives without the samurai and hitman aspects of the film. However both aspects work exceptionally well, the effect taken as a whole make this one of the best films of the past few years.
Besides Whitaker and his friends, one other great performance is given by Tricia Vessey as Louise Vargo, the young girl that sets all that happens in motion. It's a small part but a key one that she does an admirable job with.
If there is a flaw with this film it is that the gangster villains are unnecessarily racist. These scenes are somewhat jarring on first viewing, but are at least consistent with the film's ultimate tone that the gangster's way of life is dying, while the code of the samurai is timeless. It is no coincidence that all the mobsters are much older than Whitaker. Both characters note numerous times that the world is changing, the difference is the gangsters say it with fear and trepidation, while Whitaker notices it as observation. Like the changing of the wind the changing of time and circumstance is neither good nor bad when weighed against his code.
While Whitaker deserves infinite praise for his performance, almost just as much praise must be given to director Jim Jarmush. His directing of this film is quite daring and even more skillfull. His approach to the narration is unusual and yet it works on multiple levels and lets us this is a film more about tone than action. The character driven film is a rare commodity. Most films are plot driven moving from point A to point B with no more creativity than a child connecting a dot-to-dot. Here we have a film that starts with its characters and lets them live the lives they've always lived before the central plot elements invaded their existence. The plot is addressed in a timely enough manner, but we see the characters have their own commitments to fulfill too. It's a hard trick to make a character driven film really work without seeming disjointed or slowly paced but Jarmush succeeds masterfully. Jarmush also fills the film with other references in the background that emphasize the character's natures-such as book on bears or the dialogue of a few cartoons here and there. Many films of try to do this, but few films I have ever seen do it as well as Ghost Dog does.
A final note, the ending of this film that is one that will be very divisive. People will either love it or hate, personally I loved it. It is an ending that is true to all that his come before for both the characters and their conflicting codes but also one that is both surprising despite being adequately foreshadowed.
This is one of the strangest, and most likable movies I have ever
seen....and I have seen a lot, believe me.
Scene after scene was bizarre. I watched an amazement on the first viewing, chuckling here and there. By the third viewing, I just laughing out loud throughout much of it. The dark, subtle humor in here is as good as I've ever seen on film....even though it may be classified more of a gangster film than a comedy.
The humor mainly involved the gangsters, who were a bunch of old Mafia men. A mob never looked this pathetic but they were characters. It was especially fun to see Henry Silva again, a man who used to be an effective villain back on a lot of TV shows in the 1960s. He didn't say much in this movie but the looks on his face were priceless. The funniest guy, at least to me, was the mobster who sang and danced to rap music!
The byplay between "Ghost Dog," the hero of the movie played wonderfully by Forest Whitaker, and the ice cream man, who only spoke French, also was fun and entertaining.
Almost every character in here was a strange, led by Whitaker who plays a modern-day hit-man who lives by the code of the ancient Samurai warriors. He also trains and communicates through carrier pigeons. Hey, I said this was a bizarre movie!
The violence was no-nonsense, however, nothing played for laughs and unlike Rambo-mentality, people who were shot at were hit and usually killed right away.
Along the way on this strange tale was a lesson or two on loyalty, racism, philosophies, kindness, communication, etc. How much of this you take seriously, and how much as a gag, is up to you, I guess. The more I watch this, the more I see it as clever put-on comedy....yet sad. It's not to easy to describe but you wind up getting involved with these odd people.
The movie changes rapidly as Whitaker does in this story. One minute he is a brutally bear-like hit-man and the next minute, the gentlest of souls.
A very unique film. The title looks a bit stupid and one you would easily dismiss as moronic, but it is far from it. Great entertainment.
Jim Jarmusch is one of the few filmmakers in Hollywood able to make
bodies of work that are challenging, thoughtful, and with a distinctive
voice. Like the Coen Brothers, it's hard to make his films accessible
to the public like many other films at the cineplexes, and that's part
of the joy in watching a film such as Ghost Dog. It's such a strange
kind of story, but it's a story that extremely well crafted, even when
some of the characters aren't developed enough past a certain point.
While I can't really say that it's a great film, there are plenty of
great things about it.
Such as a pulsing, rhythmically engaging soundtrack (I'm not a big fan of rap and hip-hop, but the artists on here are better than expected) with the RZA behind the seat. Delicate, finite cinematography by Robby Mueller (who's other superb collaboration with Jarmusch was on Down By Law). A performance from Forrest Whitaker, as the dedicated, un-hinged-from reality 'samurai' known as Ghost Dog, which ranks among his best and shows in plain sight that he can carry an action film with patience and cool. And the film also carries a fine sense of humor to many scenes - the fact that these gangsters (one of which Dog's boss) watch more cartoons than take care of business is as funny as the way they interact sometimes. While it tends to streak on parody, in the characters there's still the fascinating Jarmusch has in mixing the cultures.
It's a hard film to classify, for even though it's a martial-arts movie, the only sight of a sword is used for practice and not a blood-bath in Kill Bill. It's a gangster movie, but every five minutes or so there's philosophical notes on the way of the samurai that seems more in place in a (good, thematically engaging) art film than a (good, shoot-em-up) Hollywood actioner. It's a movie about urban-life, yet the only signs of Urbana are shown from a distance, where the only two who will talk to Ghost Dog are a Haitian ice cream guy (who provides a wonderfully weird scene on the roof with Ghost Dog), and a little girl who likes to read. But it's this mixture that can keep a viewer on his or her toes, especially once you realize the psychological state of the lead as much as his spiritual state.
Parts of the film might turn off one group, but the other parts of the film might keep the same group enthralled. In fact, it's as interesting a comparison to be made to Kill Bill (itself a hybrid) as it is in the spiritual and stylistic parent, Le Samourai by Melville. Like those films, at the least, Jarmusch's film asks to be looked at more than once...Anyway, three cheers for Garry "Nobody" Farmer!
Men clinging to noble, outdated ideals in a world that no longer cares
about such things: that's the concept here. Whitaker shows amazing
strength and control in an antihero role that is necessarily secretive
and subdued. Silva and Tormey turn in solid performances -- Tormey is
especially poignant as the second-fiddle mafioso, torn between his
admiration of Ghost Dog and his devotion to his own sempai (Silva).
The excellent soundtrack, courtesy of RZA, adds its own somber-yet-hip mood to the work. Jarmusch frames his characters on rooftops, on 'hood byways, in mansions, in the back rooms of Chinese restaurants, and everywhere there is a feeling of the walls closing in, of things coming to an end, of finality. See it. It's a good movie.
The movie is about codes of conduct, with 2 main codes that are dying
out or are dead.
One is the code of the Mafia the other is the Samurai.
The basic plot is this. One of the Mafia wiseguys must be killed as he is having an affair with the daughter of the Mafia Don.
The person they get to do it is an African American who lives by the code of the Samurai and goes by the name of Ghost Dog. To be honest, I have met many Japanafiles so this is not so unbelievable.
But the code of the Mafia means that if you kill a wiseguy then you must be killed or the Mafia person who hired him must be killed.
Jim Jarmusch makes movies where the characters close relations based on only very small things. The Mafia wiseguy saved Ghost Dogs life, so now he must be his retainer. He lives off the land (lives on a roof, steals the cars and equipment he needs to do a job). There is also a friendship between 2 people who don't speak the same language. It is the connection between people that is so important here.
If you saw Dead man and like it, then you will love Ghost Dog. It is funny, serious, dark, tragic and beautiful all at the same time. Dead man missed the mark with some similar themes (though the DVD of Dead man has some deleted scenes that would have made the movie much better and reflected better the idea of small connections being strong connections).
I loved this movie, and I don't expect everyone else to. Art house movies have small audiences for this exact reason. I know a lot of people who avoided this movie because they thought it was cheesy. The answer is, yes it is, and most of the bad reviews reflect this same idea.
Also I love the sound track, with lots of Phat beats, and uses Hip Hop (African American culture) to reflect Japanese culture.
Jim Jarmusch isn't exactly a household name when it comes to Hollywood
directors. I don't know about other people, but personally I had heard
of his name before, but certainly couldn't name any of his movies. Now
that has changed. Since I've seen "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai"
I'll try to see at least a couple of his other movies as well, because
I really liked this one.
"Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" is a quite unique movie. It tells the story of an African-American mafia hit-man in New York who lives by the rules of the Samurai, in simplicity and alone with his pigeons, who calls himself Ghost Dog and who is always faithful to his master, a local mobster who has saved his life several years ago. When the daughter of the local mob boss witnesses one of Ghost Dog's hits, he must die himself. The first victims are his birds and in response, Ghost Dog goes right at his attackers. He is lethal, but does not want to harm his master or the young woman. And while his life is in constant danger, the only people he ever has contact with are a little girl, with whom he discusses books, and a Haitian ice cream man who only speaks French and doesn't understand a word of what Ghost Dog tells him.
I guess the best way to categorize this movie is to call it a mix of the movie "Léon", the Samurai code and hip-hop culture. Normally you would think that such a mix could never work, but this time it does. I admit that it certainly isn't a normal mix, but Jarmusch avoids the traps that would make this original and daring movie a complete waste of time and which would turn it into one unbelievable and unrealistic mess. I know it sounds strange, how can a movie that combines Italian, Japanese and hip-hop culture into one ever become one solid movie? Don't ask me, I don't even know how he came up with the idea, but it works and that's all that matters.
This movie has several strong points. One is the way everything is told and shown, which make this a sober, but powerful movie. Especially with the quotes that are taken from the Way of the Samurai and that are voiced by Forest Whitaker, a solid base is formed. This helps you to understand why the man does what he does, why he lives his life like that and why he will always respect his master. If this hadn't been in the movie, I would probably not have liked it a bit. The other strong point is the acting. The mobsters look a bit stereotypical, but are well portrayed by people like Cliff Gorman, John Tormey, Richard Portnow,... but the best performance definitely comes from Forest Whitaker. Normally Whitaker plays the role of a good guy, like for instance Jody in "The Crying Game" or Captain Ramey in "Phone Boot" and it has to be said, he really has some talent for that kind of roles. But, as he proves with this movie, he is capable of a lot more. He plays the role of the samurai hit man, doesn't look like he's fit for that role at all (at least, I would never think of him when it comes to that role), but does it really very well.
As a conclusion I would like to add that the sound track is also very nice. Normally I'm not too much a fan of hip hop in the movies, although I can appreciate it as a form of music on itself, but this time it really works. Add to this some nice acting, a cool and well-written story, some funny moments (like for instance a rapping mobster) and what you'll get is a movie that is fun and interesting to watch. I give it an 8/10.
This is a great film; it has pretty much everything a great film needs: a great score, great actors, great performances, etc. The film revolves around Ghost Dog, perfectly portrayed by Forest Whitaker. He is a assassin who lives by the code of the Samurai. Apart from him, we also follow the fate of several mafia men(though nowhere near as intimately as we follow Ghost Dog). These two very different groups, Samurai and mafia, are both depicted reasonably well, giving us insight to how the groups work, and, more importantly, their code. Both groups live and die by the code, and this is probably the most important thing in the movie, and it's shown with respect with both Samurai and mafia; I'm not entirely sure that it's correct all the way through, but that's not what's most important, anyway. The film has reasonably little action, but it's not supposed to be an action film, by any means. It's fairly slow throughout the film, but it never really bores you to the point of not watching any more; I've seen the film at least five times now, so believe me, I know. The film is very stylized and cool throughout, which definitely has some part in keeping you interested, but the theme and story/plot plays a bigger part, I think. The plot is pretty good, and though it keeps a fairly slow pace throughout the film, it also keeps your interest for the entire duration of the film. The acting is all good, though not everyone pulls off as excellent a performance as Whitaker. Isaach De Bankolé portrays Ghost Dog's best friend, and he does gives a great performance. So does Camille Winbush, who portrays a girl who Ghost Dog befriends and discusses books with. The characters are well-written and(mostly) credible. I'm not entirely sure that the film does provide a totally correct version of the Code of the Samurai. The soundtrack is great; it's made by the hip-hop artist RZA, but most of it will be enjoyable to people who aren't into hip-hop. Also, I guess it's more of a score than a soundtrack; there isn't any time where the music feels out of place in a scene. All in all, a great film, but not for all tastes. Don't go in expecting an action film; don't go in expecting a very deep an entirely intellectual film; don't go in expecting a regular movie; go in expecting to see a decent(if not good) representation of both the mafia code and the Samurai code. I've heard some people describe the ending as an anti-climax; I don't know what they were expecting... I won't say that I saw it coming, but I wasn't disappointed when it happened. It had to end it, and I think the director, Jim Jarmusch made a good decision on that. I recommend this film to people with an interest in Samurai, fans of Jarmusch and people looking for a reasonably deep film. I don't recommend this to fans of action movies, as there's fairly little action in the film. No matter who you are, if you're going to see this film, make sure you have the patience for it; it's worth sitting through the two reasonably slow hours for. 8/10
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is possibly the best Indie film of the 90s. Its certainly up
there. There are so many things I'd like to say about this film - I
could write a dissertation! So here's attempt, in point form:
-The cast: All I can say is WOW! Forest Whitaker blew me away - even more so than he usually does.
-Notice how the cartoons are a direct prediction or reflection of the scenes surrounding their viewing? And how the gangsters are all awed by them. An interesting connection to the cartoonish gangsters themselves - gangsters who are all old and have fallen into gross caricatures of what gangsters should be. It gets to the point where Vin praises Ghost Dog for sending them all off 'like real gangsters', implying that they're fake.
-Louis and Ghost Dog live by a similar code - except that Louis betrays his code in the end. Interesting how G.D. says, "me & him, we're from different ancient tribes and now we're both almost extinct." Almost prophetic as it leads to the High Noon style Western showdown, where G.D. sacrifices himself in order to remain honourable.
-The best friend, marvelously played by Issach de Bankole, is able to communicate back and forth with G.D., even though neither of them speak the same language. Yet they always know what the other is saying.
This is a classic samurai tale, and a classic fairy tale. A fascinating connection to Rashomon, featured in the film, which takes the same story, which changes drastically as its recounted by different witnesses. Yo have the sens in this film that those who are involved on the same plane are separated by different understandings of reality.
You really need patience to appreciate this film and its various divergences. Many of the slow moments are extremely pertinent to the parent themes of the film. Set in Unknown, USA - which may as well be feudal Japan - the film breaks boundaries of communication and social/moral code. "The end is important in all things". 10/10.
Basically, Jim Jarmush's best (and most accessible) film; Forrest
Whitaker's best performance (and the best performances by a host of
little recognized but worthy character actors), the best sound track,
best music from the RZA; - I mean, '90's film-making just couldn't get
better than this, and if you're having trouble understanding this, then
read some books and see some movies, because this is a film that does
not talk "down" to its audience, but expects us to live up to it.
This is a film about the clash - and potential interweaving - of very different cultures. That the interweavings ultimately become untethered, is solely because we are not yet ready to live up to the promise of being a "multi-cultural" melting-pot that we have always promised ourselves we'd become.... But that doesn't give us any right to lose hope or stop trying.
Ghost Dog is the spirit of this possible future. We don't have to have the worst of every culture, we could actually bring together the best.
Magnificently written, shot, performed - and, despite a grim finale, one of the most optimistic films on this topic I've ever seen.
It's a good book - I recommend it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Superficially, this is a set of mirror images: the code of the mob vs that of the samuri; urban anarchy vs the order of nature; inner grace vs ostentatious coolness; the word vs the deed; small acts vs the context of death. People talking different languages.
There's a post-Greenaway use of the read (and seen) written narrative that sets the viewers' perspective -- Jarmusch's work has always been an internally self-aware narrative of external acts, usually the normal movements of life.
The main thing is probably missed by RZA who takes himself seriously. Jarmusch goofs on all this, heavily on the mobsters, and more subtly but profoundly on black urban preening. Whitaker is in on the irony -- being really cool means knowing its a joke, and Dog is cool in dimensions that Shaft/RZA can never reach.
Pulp Fiction had some clever dialog and a neat narrative folding, but what QT tried in terms of style (even the attempt is interesting), Jarmusch balances it perfectly here.
The small center for me was between the two reading girls, and the implication that there were as many movies unfurling as there were characters -- we were seeing only one.
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