in Criterion Month

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)

I should watch more Jim Jarmusch movies. That’s it, that’s my big takeaway from finally watching Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai after owning the DVD for probably something like 15 years. I’ve only seen a few of his movies, but I’ve liked them all (especially the beloved Patterson) which has locked a few of them perpetually on my queue (especially Only Lovers Left Alive). My only explanation for why is that he makes weird movies that don’t exactly go the way you’d expect them to, so it’s hard to put yourself in the right mood. And that’s pretty weak sauce, but was definitely true for Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.

I hope the images I pulled help set the tone better than the incredibly awesome synopsis of Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai everyone reads first. Which is: Forest Whitaker plays “Ghost Dog,” an enigmatic hitman who works for the Mafia in an unnamed, but very New Jersey-ish city. Ghost Dog is good at what he does, but he’s eccentric; for example, he only communicates by messenger pigeon. His best friend is a French-speaking ice cream man named Raymond (Isaach de Bankolé, who you might recognize as this guy from Black Panther). Most importantly, he likes to read this 300-year-old book, Hagakure, which he uses as define the code he lives by: the way of the samurai.

Ghost Dog considers himself the retainer of Louie (John Tormey), a mid-live made man in the local mafia. Thanks to Ghost Dog’s code, he will do anything for Louie, including a hit on another made man in the same organization. This goes bad when the boss’ daughter is accidentally in the room when Ghost Dog does the job and he decides to spare her because she recommends he read her copy of Rashōmon. Louie and his co-conspirators feel they have no choice but to cover up this mess by killing Ghost Dog, while Ghost Dog goes on his own killing spree to take out anyone who could pose a threat to Louie. Shit’s complicated.

So, as awesome as Ghost Dog sounds, dude’s a weirdo. He lives is squalor with his pigeons, is profoundly lonely, and, as stated above, feels a profound sense of loyalty to a mobster who’s trying to get him killed. Also he does that samurai katana sheathing move every time he holsters his gun which is hilarious. He’s a troubled man who sees himself as part of a dying breed. He actually has that in common with Louie and the other gangsters, who are universally old and/or out of shape. They don’t even seem to be doing that well, as the struggle to make ends meet at the Chinese restaurant they hang out at. Just a bunch of strange dudes on the cusp of going extinct.

Which is the big twist of Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, it’s only kind of an action movie. Yes, Ghost Dog goes on a killing spree. Yes, it’s got an original score by RZA. But this is not Kill Bill. This is not a wordy, indie writer-director making a one-time transformation into action genius. This is still Jim Jarmusch. Which means most of the time, this movie is slow and contemplative. And that can be cool too. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai ended up having more in common with Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï, another movie about a gaijin hitman who thinks he can live that samurai life. Maybe enough to call it a remake? I don’t know, I don’t make the rules.