The Movie Waffler Re-Release Review - GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI | The Movie Waffler


Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai review
A philosophical hitman is targeted for execution by his employers.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Jim Jarmusch

Starring: Forest Whitaker, John Tormey, Cliff Gorman, Henry Silva, Isaach de Bankolé, Camille Winbush

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai bluray

The hitman (and occasionally hitwoman) was a popular figure in 1990s cinema, displacing the cowboy of old as the taciturn anti-hero onto whom filmmakers and audiences could project their own ideas. The cowboy was western cinema's cousin of the Japanese Samurai, with two of the biggest westerns of the 20th century – The Magnificent Seven and A Fistful of Dollars – being remakes of Kurosawa samurai films. Jim Jarmusch joined these cross-cultural dots with his 1999 movie Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.

The film's protagonist is Forest Whitaker's Ghost Dog, one of those classic screen hitmen who likes to keep to himself, living in a loft with just his pigeons for company. Ghost Dog works for Louie (John Tormey), a clownish Italian mobster (the surreal gangsters here are straight out of a David Lynch movie) who once saved him from being killed in an alley by a group of attackers. When not bumping off people for Louie, Ghost Dog immerses himself in the teachings of the Buddhist monk Yamamoto Tsunetomo, as outlined in his book 'Hagakure'. The film's chapters are preceded by passages from the book, narrated in voiceover by Whitaker's distinctively laid back drawl.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai review

When one of Ghost Dog's hits is witnessed by the daughter of a mob boss, the Mafia decides he's a liability that needs to be erased. Trouble is, they don’t know where he lives, as Louie only contacts him through carrier pigeon messages. Thus begins the classic plot of a hitman turning on his own employers, an evergreen narrative still thriving today as seen in David Fincher's The Killer.

At the time, Ghost Dog seemed an odd fit for Jarmusch, comparable to Apichatpong Weerasethakul making a slasher movie in 2023. Comparisons were made to the languid style of French filmmaker Jean Pierre-Melville, and Ghost Dog shares numerous similarities with Melville's own hitman thriller Le Samourai. In the '90s this was what constituted "slow cinema" but watching Ghost Dog in this era of ponderous three hour long Batman movies, it zips along with the pace of a Buzzcock number in comparison. Jarmusch's action scenes may be brief but they're technically accomplished and as thrilling in their own way as those of Luc Besson's Leon. The director punctuates his anti-hero's attacks by having his targets watch cartoons which serve as omens for their forthcoming deaths. There's a fantastic sequence that sees a mobster shot through the drainpipe of his bathroom sink, which is simultaneously a nod to Seijun Suzuki's Branded to Kill and the very cartoon seen playing on screen.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai review

If Ghost Dog seemed out of step with Jarmusch's filmography in 1999, it now feels like a companion piece to his 2016 film Paterson. Ghost Dog features fictional license plates but it's clearly filmed in post-industrial urban New Jersey. Both movies feature bookish protagonists who take joy from the simple pleasures of life. For Ghost Dog it largely revolves around his respect for nature: his ultimate revenge spree is prompted by the massacre of his pigeons while his murder of a pair of hunters boasting of downing a black bear will have animal lovers cheering him on. Nature seems to almost communicate with Ghost Dog. His plan to shoot a mob boss from a distance is scuffed when a small bird lands on the barrel of his rifle and a dog stares at him as though silently judging his actions.

As with Paterson, the streets Ghost Dog inhabits are filled with small details of life, often of an absurdist nature like an elderly potential mugging victim who dispatches his attacker with surprise karate moves. Ghost Dog claims he has one friend, a Haitian ice cream seller (Isaach de Bankolé) who can't speak a word of English. This arrangement seems to suit Ghost Dog, with the two men enjoying each other's company unburdened by a shared language. As with Besson's Leon, the hitman's heart is exposed by a young girl (Camille Winbush) who swaps books with the assassin.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai review

With his melancholy hang-dog features and a face that almost seems like it would melt if he cried, Whitaker was born to play this character. The actor possesses one of the most heart-warming smiles in Hollywood, and the beam on his face when the bird lands on his rifle is touching but also tragic: this is a man who deserves better than the fate we expect he's destined for.

Several sequences see Jarmusch ape Scorsese's Taxi Driver as Ghost Dog drives through a night filled with potential dangers, and there's a direct reference to the scene where Travis Bickle drives past the pimp Sport. But unlike Bickle, who decides the world is his enemy, Ghost Dog's teachings have taught him to find beauty in the darkness. Where Bickle is stuck in his own head, Ghost Dog fills his mind with the teachings of others. If more men followed his lead we might be in a better place today.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is on UK DVD, 4K UHD, bluray and VOD from October 23rd from Studiocanal.

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