Mister Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) has just jacked a nice slick car for our journey through the City streets. He selects his pre-recorded CDR mixtape and off we cruise through the dark neighborhood. No words, just nodding and contemplating.
Tagline – All assassins live beyond the law… only one follows the code…
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is one cool as fuck film. On so many levels. Scene to scene it effortlessly portrays style. It’s deeply sad in its nature, helped along with Forest’s sorrowful demeanour. However it features pitch perfect black comedy at every turn. This gangster and hitman drama whole inner essence resembles more of a traditional western. And somehow it manages to also fuse African American, Italian and Japanese cultures together within it’s narrative. Further that, it features a soundtrack that keeps your head rocking. Every aspect of this film sweetly, perfectly, just bubbles away.
Ghost Dog is our anti hero. A once bruised, battered and bullied kid now filled with a deep honor and a code. Personally indebted to an old Italian gangster called Louie (John Tormey) for saving his life. Ghost Dog repays his debt, with respect to Louie, carrying out contract jobs. You see, Ghost Dog is a hitman. He abides by a strict code. Followed step by step through the ancient traditional spiritual and warrior code teachings within his beloved book, Hagakure by Yamamoto Tsunetomo.
Ghost Dog – “In the words of the ancients, one should make his decision within the space of seven breaths. It is a matter of being determined and having the spirit to break through to the other side.“
His name, Ghost Dog, sums him up. A lone wolf. Stealth like, invisible, like a ghost. A man deep in thought. He keeps himself to himself, well apart from his feather friends. Surrounded by his beloved pigeons he shadow spars and meditates within the open space of the rooftop. No one knows what he does. No one knows hes a deadly efficient killer. With no phone the only contact to his work is directly through Louie with the use of a tiny message tied to the foot of a pigeon.
Louie – “For the past four years, he’s done, maybe, twelve perfect contracts. Perfect, Like a ghost.“
You see, Ghost Dog is a hitman. A hired assassin for the mob. The dying last breed of aging Italian gangsters, sit, hanging on to what little turf they have left. Huddled together these old men occupy the back room of what was once probably a thriving Italian restaurant but now replaced with a Chinese takeaway.
Whereas Ghost Dog’s scenes are, cool, deep and sad, the gangsters on the other hand give us the dark humour of the film.
The gangsters are lost in the past. Still trying to hold on to the old ways. Oblivious to the fact they are not what they were. The old guard are dying. The youth have moved on. The organisation hung together by three men sitting around around a table. The shouting deaf toothless pensioner (Gene Ruffini), an intense chiseled psychotic looking mobster in his twilight years with an insanely over tense stare called Ray Vargo (Henry Silva). And lastly and best of all the Flavor Flav rap rhyming lyrical dropping gangster and spokesman, Sonny Valerio (Cliff Gorman)
Sonny Valerio – “My favorite was always Flavor Flav from Public Enemy. You got the funky fresh fly flavor.”
Ghost Dogs methods are perfect. His hits meticulously worked out. Always clean. No mistakes. Perfection. A new job is received from his trusty feathered friend. His hit? To take out Handsome Frank (Richard Portnow). One thing is different, out of his control! Incompetent useless gangsters! The plan still works. Just one change? Ray Vargo’s daughter witnesses the hit. Now old gangsters and their morals can be unpredictable. Ghost Dog finds himself now the hit, the hunted. The Italian’s are all, “Who is this black bear like, pigeon loving man? I want him dead!! You hear? Dead.” Putting in motion a whole chain of painful events.
Sonny Valerio – “It’s time to tell us everything you know about this mysterious, ghost-like, untraceable, fuckin’ button man. He needs to be neutralized. Erased from the face of the planet.“
Now what’s so imaginative and beautifully put across is Forest Whitaker’s performance. He’s far removed from being a traditional stealth like, professionally hitman. Especially with his big hulking bear like frame but Forest couldn’t be more perfect for the part. Obsessively learning the art form of passed down teachings from ancient samurai warriors. He tip toes like mouse, hides within the shadows and strikes with the power and precision of a snake.
Ghost Dog – “According to what one of the elders said, taking an enemy on the battlefield is like a hawk taking a bird. Even though it enters into the midst of a thousand of them, it gives no attention to any bird than the one it first marked.“
As I say at the beginning, this film is beautiful in its set scenes. The relaxed approach to film making. Quiet thoughtful moments. Ghost Dog sat on a park bench. A young girl sits and watches him. A dog stares him out. An ice cream is bought. We sit in the passenger seat of a stolen car and listen to Ghost Dogs hand picked tunes. We look out the window watching the night city streets hustle and bustle. One of the truly remarkable scenes is the friendship between his only friend Raymond (Isaach De Bankolé) the French speaking ice cream seller. They both chat away not understanding what each other says. Yet beautifully they do. Happy to be in conversation together. A close bond.
A Few Things About The Film.
- Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is directed by the brilliant Jim Jamusch. Such a creative writer and filmmaker. I loved most of his films especially Stranger Than Paradise (1984) Down By Law (1986) Mystery Train (1989) and Broken Flowers (2005). Though I would say Ghost Dog is my personal favourite. Looking through his filmography I’ve some how missed Night On Earth (1991) and Dead Man (1995) so I can’t wait to visit them. And I’m not sure what to do about his new one? The Dead Don’t Die (2019). I was so excited about his take on a zombie film but then the reviews started coming in. Hopefully it will come to Netflix soon.
- The soundtrack is by rapper, record producer and beat maker RZA. Featuring tracks by Wu-Tang Clan, Killah Priest, and Public Enemy. My favourite tune in the film is when Willie Williams record Armageddon Time blasts from the car stereo system.
- Cult legend and total bad ass Henry Silva is perfect as one of the head gangsters. He’s been in the film game since 1950 and appears mostly typed cast as the villain. With those distinctive looks he was destined to be the ultimate bad guy. And rightly became the legend that he is. An iconic cult film fav. B-movies would later come but he appeared alongside Frank Sinatra in Ocean’s 11 (1960) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962). I need to see his Italian films like The Boss (1973) and The Italian Connection (1972) plus one I’ve been itching to get too for years, as it sounds cool as fuck, Johnny Cool (1963). Ghost Dog has become his last film apart from a cameo homage in Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
- There’s lots of nods to classic Japanese films with the likes of the classic Rashomon (1950) with it’s theme of people seeing different versions of the same event. And the gun shot through the sinks drain pipe was from director Seijun Suzuki’s amazing film Branded To Kill (1967).
It’s hard to come across a film as effortlessly cool as Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. From a career high performance from Forest Whitaker in a role specially written for him by Jamusch. A few of the little things I love are the muted friendship, the respect shown on the street, the cartoon loving gangsters, the way Ghost Dog uses his gun like a samurai sword. The quiet moments of reflection, the soundtrack, the sadness and the humour. Everything is perfection for me.
I walked out the cinema with the biggest smile on my face. I knew I’d just witness a perfect film for me. Everything right on-point. I knew I’d be revisiting this movie over and over. I was right.
Hey thanks for popping in. Keep loving film. All the best… Mikey Wolf