Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)

“…’Night Nurse’? You read that?”
“Nope. I just like the cover.”

On the face of it, and from the title, it’s hard to figure out whether to be excited or horrified by a movie like Ghost Dog. It’s Jim Jarmusch, which means any number of things, and it’s Forest Whitaker, which means a number of different things, and a soundtrack by The RZA just means a whole other slew of things. Ostensibly, it’s a collision of hip-hop and samurai (so, you know, the RZA, at least, makes sense, after a fashion) or organized crime and samurai, or some mish-mash of all three.

Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) is a hitman who works under the direction of mob-man Louie (John Tormey), and has been tasked with whacking Handsome Frank (Richard Portnow) for spending a little too much alone time with Louise Vago (Tricia Vessey), the daughter of boss Ray Vago (Henry Silva). When the hit goes, well, absolutely right, but includes the unexpected factor of a not “on the bus” Louise, Vago calls Louie in and tells him they are now going to need to take down his mysterious hit man. What follows is a hitman devoted to the code of the samurai, as espoused in Hagakure, clashing with the aging mobsters who once functioned as his employers–and, within that, the exploration of the limited social life Ghost Dog has allowed himself with the French-speaking-only, ice cream vendor Raymond (Isaach de Bankolé) and the curious girl Pearline (Camille Winbush), to whom he lends the copy of Rashomon (the collection of stories, not the Kurosawa flick) he gained from Louise.

I feel like you cannot do anything to imagine this would be anything but an incredibly odd movie. If you know Jim Jarmusch’s ouevre, it should be even less surprising, I should think. That it is indeed  “Jim Jarmusch movie” (as opposed to one he simply directed functionally) is quite clear early on. Long, quiet pauses, especially some that turn to slow fades to black. The sense of humour that permeates the movie–such as Ghost Dog’s knowingly redundant dialogue with Ray that neither of them understands, or the hilariously doofy mobsters–is also pretty familar.

Jarmusch never lets the humour dominate or control the movie, though. We have Whitaker’s performance, which is as excellent as always for that man. In the midst of his work, he is knowingly and intentionally cold and deadened, while his interactions with Ray and Pearline give way to some softening. Even the dog he looks at as he first meets Pearline (which stares, too, at him) gives the hint of an upward tic to his mouth. He’s clearly a lover of animals, as is emphasized throughout. Tormey is thoroughly endearing as Ghost Dog’s “master” who is caught up in his role as mobster.

RZA’s score is heavy on 808 boom-bap-based beats, very clean and straightforward (and encouraging me strongly to pursue the soundtrack), with intermittent appearances from non-instrumental rap tracks (most amusingly via Cliff Gorman as Sonny Valerio, fan of Public Enemy) and a particularly noticeable free jazz track that Ghost Dog plays in another stolen car from Andrew Cyrille and Jimmy Lyons, his second genre deviation after a previous car trip includes the dub-y Willi Williams track “Armagideon Time”.

The mobsters in particular end up amusing in a sad way–Vago and his men (especially the hard-of-hearing “Aging Consigliere” played by Gene Ruffini) are nowhere near the top of their game. They are clumsy, poor, inefficient, and oriented around brute force, in contrast to Ghost Dog’s lithe, professional, and expert movements. Louie struggles in the middle of this, first resisting the intentions of the largely silent Vago (and the greatly ridiculous Ruffini’s interjections) out of respect for the loyalty Ghost Dog has shown him, and the threat his skills imply.

But this is very much a part of the film medium specifically. Outside the trademark relaxed transitions of Jarmusch, there are numerous interesting choices visually, like the early matching of “swords and arrows” to Ghost Dog’s silenced pistols and machete. When Ghost Dog finds himself unexpectedly confronted with Louise, he backs away slowly and the camera slides sideways around a corner to mimic his cautious exit. The music is matched brilliantly to the movie, with the street swagger of Ghost Dog (who also has the respect of gangs, as seen in a brief cameo from Jamie Hector–later Marlo Stanfield in The Wire), or his spiritually intense meditation and physical practice of swordplay and martial arts on a roof-top. This isn’t surprising for a man like Jarmusch–even setting aside the play of music in his movies (and that would be pretty criminal, but for the sake of argument), his selection of figures for Coffee and Cigarettes should give it away. Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, Jack and Meg White, oh, right–and the RZA and GZA–only a few years later.

I have vague notions of either really enthusiastic or really disparaging comments about this movie crossing my path at some point–I honestly can’t remember which, and don’t much care at this point. I wouldn’t be surprised that someone would dislike such an odd movie on the face of it, or out of failure to catch the weird humour Jarmusch inserted, but it’s worth the attention for sure. It matches, somehow, a mob movie, a hip-hop movie, and a samurai movie into a weird mixture that functions perfectly despite the weird interplay of these three odd things to combine. If you dig Jarmusch and haven’t seen it yet–change that. If you’re willing to give things a go, especially if you like odd things, then do so. It’s worth it.

Also: it was a surreal moment when I remember where it was I knew Henry Silva’s face from. It was Alligator, of course, which is almost referenced here, with his attempt to seduce Marisa with his gator mating calls.