Blu-ray Review: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Jim Jarmusch | CAST:  Forest Whitaker, John Tormey, Cliff Gorman, Tricia Vessey, Henry Silva, Victor Argo,  Isaach De Bankolé
RELEASE DATE: 11/17/20 | PRICE: DVD $15.90, Blu-ray $27.99
BONUSES: Jarmusch responds to viewer questions; new conversation between  Whitaker and De Bankolé; new interviews with casting director Ellen Lewis and the founder of the USA Shaolin Temple; new video essay on RZA’s original score for the film; a 2000 program on the making of the film; deleted scenes and outtakes; archival interviews
SPECS: NR | 116 mins | Crime drama | 1:85 | 5.1 surround

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall 

At his best Jim Jarmusch has produced films that span several genres and blend a quietly meditative tone with sporadic outbursts of violence or broad humor. This is particularly true of his three “gunslinger” movies — Dead Man, Ghost Dog, and The Limits of Control. This troika of films show a great deal of imagination and contain tangents that are often better than the central plotline.

Ghost Dog is a 1999 “urban samurai” film that combines riffs off of scenes from celebrated hitman movies, dark gangster humor, and a “fusion” hip-hop/jazz/Asian soundtrack that drives the action. In print it sounds like a mess, but the resulting film is one of Jarmusch’s best and has acquired a sizable cult over the years.

The plot revolves around a hitman called “Ghost Dog” (Forest Whitaker, Lee Daniels’ The Butler) who works for an N.J. mob family and maintains a spartan lifestyle based on the 18th-century book Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai. When one of his hits causes a stir in the mob, his bosses decide to eliminate him — but he’s not easily dispensed with.

A list of influences on the film appears in the end credits, with Jarmusch thanking authors and filmmakers whose work inspired him — among the latter are Jean-Pierre Melville and Seijun Suzuki, whose masterpieces Le Samourai and Branded to Kill are evoked in certain set pieces. The literary tone of the piece is reinforced by several shots of characters reading and various conversations about one book or another. (Quotes from the Hagakure appear onscreen to punctuate our antihero’s activities.)

Although comprised of disparate elements, the film fits together perfectly, with three elements overwhelming the others. The first is the evocative visual style supplied by cinematographer Robby Mueller (Wim Wenders: The Road Trilogy), which avoids action-movie cliches in the violent sequences and creates a neo-noir landscape out of an N.J. neighborhood. The aforementioned soundtrack, composed and performed by the Rza of the Wu Tang Clan, is another key component of Ghost Dog’s layered brilliance. But the strongest suit is surely the top-notch cast who make Jarmusch’s brainchildren come to life.

Forest Whitaker is Ghost Dog

The deadpan mobsters are led by veteran stone-face Henry Silva (The Manchurian Candidate), and Cliff Gorman steals each scene he’s in as a rap-loving goombah. Isaach De Bankolé does a great job with a character that could’ve been too whimsical to be believed — a French ice cream vendor who doesn’t understand English. And Camille Winbush impresses as a brainy, (non-cloying) little girl who has a few key conversations with Ghost Dog.

Thought it all, though, Whitaker guides the piece as the physically imposing but also pacific killer who is willing to die for his code of honor (which he knows has doomed him to death).

Among the raft of extras are lengthy electronic press kit materials from the initial release of the film that feature Whitaker, Jarmusch, and the Rza discussing the film. One of the best pieces shot for this release — and one that dates the package directly to the pandemic — is a Zoom call with Whitaker and De Bankolé, moderated by film scholar Michael B. Gillespie.

De Bankolé, who admits that Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control (2009) could well be a sequel to Ghost Dog (as his character could have travelled from one film to the other), notes his gratitude to Jarmusch for choosing to have him translate the English dialogue for his character in the script into French.

Whitaker offers some quite interesting reflections on what he sees as the film’s theme —  “when a culture dies” — and the fact that the defining characteristic of Ghost Dog is his adherence to a code of behavior that is extinct.

Jarmusch continues his Criterion tradition of not recording an audio commentary or an in-depth interview, instead answering questions sent in by viewers. The topics covered thus range from the essential to the dispensable (as when we learn what music Jim has listened to during the pandemic). The best questions, however, coax out of him some important context and background info about the film.

In response to a question about other actors playing Ghost Dog, Jarmusch notes that had Whitaker not liked the script, the film never would’ve been made, as the two had developed a friendship. Thus, the film was written specifically for the star of Bird and The Crying Game.

Also discussed by the filmmaker is the role that the film’s two featured female characters play (as they will take over from the men). One questions causes Jarmusch to speculate on the growing cult for the film, citing people he has been told loved it, including NBA star Allen Iverson, former Texas Governor Ann Richards, and Bob Dylan.

The most entertaining info concerns a scene in the film that has nothing to do with the plot but is unforgettable — a bit where Ghost Dog and the ice cream vendor marvel at one of their neighbors, who is constructing a boat on the roof of his apartment building (with no way to get it down). Jarmusch stresses that he didn’t invent this sublime tangent — he saw it for real on an adjoining roof when he lived in the East Village.

He also notes that one special night while living in that same neighborhood he spied a man walking his pet llama.

Buy or Rent Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”