Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is a 1999 film written and directed by Jim Jarmusch with Forest Whitaker as the protagonist. After having demonstrated that he had grown considerably over the years both as a director and, above all, as a screenwriter, Jarmusch made one of his best films. All the elements of the movie work on several levels and its themes are interesting and well developed. Like Dead Man (1995), this film also differs from the director’s initial canons (those of the first decade of his career) of the various Permanent Vacation (1981), Stranger Than Paradise (1984), Mystery Train (1989) and Night on Earth (1992) by focusing on something new: the exploration of a disappearing world like that of the Italian-American mobsters so dear to Scorsese, to mention a director who brought that same world to the big screen several times .
Jarmusch decided to make a mobster movie in his own peculiar way, through the eyes of yet another strange character (he’s compared to a bear in the movie): a killer for hire used by the mafia who follows the principles of the ancient samurais, with a very strong sense of honor. When his boss is ordered to take him out by those above him in the mafia hierarchy, the problems for the mobsters begin.
Forest Whitaker divinely interprets the killer with solid principles who’s so devoted to his master that he’s ready to sacrifice himself for him. The character is in some way similar to that of Jean Reno in Luc Besson’s Léon (released five years earlier): at some point he even befriends a little girl (Pearline, played by Camille Winbusch). The fact that he’s comfortable only with his trained pigeons and that his best friend is a Haitian ice cream seller who only speaks French (Isaach De Bankolé, already seen in Night on Earth) make him extremely memorable. Ghost Dog, that’s his name, is a character with which it’s easy to sympathize, a tragic figure despite being a killer: it’s not easy to create such a character and Jarmusch did it brilliantly!
Even the gangsters who watch cartoons all day and who are practically bankrupt (all the buildings where they reside are for sale, and they seem to have trouble paying their rents) are all remarkable. All related to each other, they spend their days planning senseless cross vendettas and prove on several occasions that they are inept with firearms, which should be their bread and butter.
But beyond the splendid characters, the film is really solid, a characteristic that wasn’t exactly a trademark of Jarmusch’s filmography until then. Drawing on numerous passages from Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s book Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, Jarmusch built a story that not only pays homage to the samurai figure, but also to Japanese cinema (important directors such as Akira Kurosawa and Seijun Suzuki come to mind). The movie is well written and there are so many intertextual elements that it would be impossible to remember them all. The corpse of the bear that anticipates the fate of Ghost Dog, the cartoons that are connected to the events of the real world (including Betty Boop with the pigeons and Itchy and Scratchy having a duel before the one between Ghost Dog and Louie, John Tormey), the different points of view in the flashbacks like those of the book that passes from hand to hand until returning to Vargo’s daughter (Tricia Vessey, while her father is played by Henry Silva)…
There’s even the theme of the environment which was already present in Dead Man and which would then come back prominently in Jarmusch’s latest film, The Dead Don’t Die. Another thing that reminds of Dead Man is the presence of Gary Farmer, who also repeats one of his most important lines of that film: “Stupid fucking white men“!
And speaking of returns, the soundtrack is by RZA which would be in one of the eleven episodes of Coffee and Cigarettes released four years later. And Whitaker, who had played the same Charlie Parker who was referenced several times in Permanent Vacation in the film Bird (1988), here buys birdseed for his pigeons in a shop called Birdland, a name paying homage to the African American musician…
Ok, ok, I stop here, but there are literally a thousand things I could talk about in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. It’s a thriller that doesn’t forget humor, with a killer (!) soundtrack, with a very well written script, with an exceptional Forest Whitaker, and it’s shot really well by Jarmusch who at that point could do whatever he wanted as an established screenwriter and director of independent cinema. He was, and still is, one of the few who can afford to work only on projects in which he believes, who writes his own scripts and does so with a freedom that is granted to very few. Chapeau! Ciao!