Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)

February 25, 2011 By Mike B
Movie Review

What Worked?

Welcome to the Forest Whitaker and Jim Jarmusch show. In Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Forest Whitaker plays the title character to perfection. Director Jim Jarmusch takes a typical hitman story and turns it into a enlightening, and at times comedic, character-driven film about a hit-man devoted to the ancient code of the samurai. Whitaker is subtly phenomenal in this flick, as he exudes coolness, and Jarmusch’s direction is tranquil and always interesting.

In Ghost Dog, Whitaker arguably gives his best performance to date. Ghost Dog is stoic and wise, but also radiates lethality when necessary. Everything Ghost Dog does is smooth, the epitome of cool; he’s so cool he burns. Whitaker gives a subdued performance, yet we feel his emotions instantly. Whitaker’s mannerisms and body language speak louder than his words. There is one pivotal scene when he witnesses the death of his pigeons where his face is stone, but his eyes are on fire holding back volcanic emotions. He mixes the urban culture and ancient samurai style seamlessly, which sounds like a bad idea on paper, but he hits his target dead. Tricia Vessey, as Louise Vargo, has a small role, but gives an admirable and noticeable performance. John Tormey also delivers the goods, as his Mafioso character isn’t completely wrapped in cliché.

Jarmusch utilizes fade-ins and fade-outs to bring out how the film projects our interwoven cultures. He also punctuates some scenes with such choices as snap-shot cuts and transparent shots, but the camera is always capturing the soul of the film. Jarmusch also made a beneficial move by getting the RZA on board to provide the perfect musical accompaniment to the film.

This film is more about tone than plot, and it works very well. Jarmusch always comes at the audience from unexpected angles, and this film is no different.  Mainly, there’s the juxtaposition of the way of a hitman with the way of a samurai. Culture collision is one part, a way of life is the other. It’s about being one with nature, and communicating without language. We absorb Ghost Dog throughout the entire film, and we walk away wiser if we’re lucky.

Potential Drawbacks:

This film is not the typical hit-man flick, and may be too quiet and subdued for some. The pacing will be comfortable for some, and just plain slow for others. In addition, if viewers involve themselves in the standard plot over the character analysis, then those viewers will most likely be disappointed. If you don’t like quiet, philosophical films, this may not be the film for you. However, I suggest you get out of your comfort zone and give it a shot.

Film Recommendations:

The American
Leon: The Professional

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