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Reviews of Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
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A lotta people look at me like I’m crazy when i tell them that i think Ghost Dog is a masterpiece (much like how i imagine Jim Jarmusch’s peers looked at him when he said he wanted to make a semi-martial arts action film with the then 250+lb Forest Whitaker in the title role of a sneaky assassin with a mysterious past). Before this films release it was kinda marketed as a traditional action film, so i can understand if some people who weren’t familiar with Jim Jarmusch were a bit disappointed when they finally saw this. However if you were familiar with Jim Jarmusch and actually expected a non-stop karate kicking action movie…then you don’t deserve to complain. I was a dumb teenager when this came out and for some reason i was expecting some Jet Li/Kill Bill type movie. Its so strange to look back over a decade ago and think about how much i use to hate this movie. But a college professor advised me to give it another shot. I guess because i was a little more mature at the time i saw a lot of things i missed at first, and i fell in love with it. What people fail to realize is that this movie is very socially conscious. As far as race goes, Jarmusch played on the fascination that many young black people have with Italians and that stereotypical mafia lifestyle, not realizing that the average mafia kingpin is pretty racist towards black people. I mean think about how silly some of these rappers look naming themselves after and idolizing people (both fictional and real) that are clearly racist.
Jarmusch also showed the ignorance and silliness of racism by white people to the point where you actually laugh in disbelief. All through out the film you hear lines from the mafia characters like; “indians, niggers, same thing” or “puerto rican, indian, nigger…same thing”. And Jarmusch also nodded at his previous film; ‘Dead Man’, with the line “stupid fucking white man”, said by Gary Farmer in a cameo appearance. And lets not forget the scene where Ghost Dog shoots the 2 racist hunters that killed the (black) bear. Normally, i don’t like heavy handed symbolism but that’s an amazing scene. But the greatest example is the mafia boss “Sonny Valerio” who expresses nothing but hatred for black people, yet at a few different points in the film he shows his knowledge of hip-hop and his ability to recite classic hip-hop lines at the drop of a hat.
Believe it or not, a lot of the content in ‘Ghost Dog’ picks up where films like ‘Do The Right Thing’ left off (tension between African Americans & Italian Americans, unity amongst black people, etc). People were too busy complaining about the lack of action to realize they were watching one of the most socially conscious films to come out in years.
In the bear scene there’s clearly a lot of racial tension. Obviously in their disguised racial conversation, “bear” could easily be interchanged with “black person”. This is a very underrated scene and probably one of the best things Jim Jarmusch has ever directed/written.
In another scene, which is an homage to ‘Dead Man’ where Gary Farmer plays a similar character, we see racism and hostility towards Native Americans. And like i mentioned in my review of ‘Claire Dolan’, Jarmusch also played with the idea of the “gentle giant” in this film. Ghost Dog is a killer, yet he’s soft spoken and friends with a little girl. In this scene Gary Farmer, who’s just as big and intimidating as Forest Whitaker, calmly cares for pigeons. Yet when he faces off against the racist mafia hitman we see his aggressive side come out.
In the realm of action, ‘Ghost Dog’ may not be ‘Die Hard’ or ‘Lethal Weapon’, but if you say that there aren’t some great choreographed action scenes in this film then you’re kidding yourself. The scenes where Ghost Dog shoots Sonny Valerio through the sink and the sequence where Ghost Dog runs through the mansion on a killing spree are 2 of the best scenes in the film. Its always interesting to see “arthouse” directors (sorry to use that term) step out of their comfort zone and try something new. When you have a director like Jim Jarmusch try his hand at action, its like a breath of fresh air because he stays away from explosions and other action movie cliches. From the way Ghost Dog cleans his weapons to the way he plans his murders, Jarmusch makes his killings look like works of art.
So not only have we now established that ‘Ghost Dog’ is one of the most socially conscious films to come out in recent years, but it also has a decent amount of action and a good amount of bloodshed that should please the average movie goer. But if that isn’t enough, how about the fact that ‘Ghost Dog’ is one of the few worthy remakes out there? Its a (VERY) loose remake of Jean Pierre Melville’s ‘Le Samourai’, which was released through the criterion collection a few years ago. Whats sad is that i don’t think most people who saw ‘Ghost Dog’ are familiar with ‘Le Samourai’, so they don’t get or appreciate a lot of the references. Jarmusch keeps the same basic plot: A lonely non-Asian assassin who lives his life by the way of the samurai that’s hired to kill someone, but is later betrayed by the same people who hired him. After that Jim Jarmusch kind of goes his own route and makes a slightly different film. He doesn’t do any exact shot for shot scenes or anything like that, but from beginning to end he tips his hat to ‘Le Samourai’ more than once. Also, Alain Delon’s cool & calm performance in ‘Le Samourai’ also inspired George Clooney’s character in ‘The American’ (another slowly paced existential hitman film) as well as Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Limits Of Control’ which is similar to ‘Ghost Dog’.
An electrifying meditation on ancient ethics now obsolete in society. Jarmush conducts a soulful opera dotted with symbolism and satire and grafted to the proverbs of Bushido. Forest Whitaker is a quiet vessel of action and observation, applying his disciplines to the irradication of an Italian crime family. It’s a shame the stabbing mockery of these old mafiosos is distracting from the story and usually unfunny. As in other Jarmush films, the soundtrack is a character in itself, ranging from gangster rap to improvisational jazz to the instrumental score of Asian strings and percussions. The music, characters, locations, and themes are all overwhelmingly rich. Ghost Dog is as unique and enchanting as they come.
After some ecclectique and challenging debut such as Stranger than Paradise or Down by Law, Jim Jarmusch his back to the colour picture with this contemporary urban samurai movie. At first, it could seem pretty weird to see Forrest Whitaker as a samurai, fast and almost floating over the ground. But it works! And it works pretty well!
The story is the one of Ghost Dog, a lonely contract killer working for the mafia who, after one mistake, is being chase by this organisation. Living the way that the Samurai Code is telling him, he will have to protect himself as well as respect his principles.
The story main point is about loneliness. The loneliness of Ghost Dog, the loneliss of Raymond… The camera of Jim Jarmusch, as usual, is perfectly fitting with the mood with slow movement and focussing on the caracter instead of the plot.
The movie is also a big tribute to Le Samourai of Jean-Pierre Melville. Apart from the title and the loneliness mood, the reference are here : lonely contract killer being chase, white glove for the killer, importance of the bird, reference to the bushido, the environnement…. What is amazing is date Jarmusch didn’t make a remake at all, but simply adapt the story to another context, another city, another situation.
It is impossible no to talk of the amazing soundtrack made by RZA. Like the one that Neil Young made for Dead Man, it is just perfect. It fits the movie from the begenning to end, always present when it needs to and subtile at other time.
The performance are simply stunning. From the physical presence of Whitaker to the funny de Bankole and Mafia chiefs, Jarmusch is directing his actors with a master hands. Even if this one isn’t generally quote as «one of Jarmusch’s best film» like Stranger than Paradise or Dead Man, I think that it could easily stand up there as of one of the most beautiful and inspiring movie of the 90s.