[box cover]

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

Artisan Home Entertainment

Starring Forest Whitaker, John Tormey, and Henry Silva

Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch

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Jim Jarmusch makes the kind of movies that infuriate people who hate independent films. The characters talk too much. Odd things happen that remain unexplained. There are no spaceships or big explosions. And they are very weird.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is a very weird movie. Which is not to say it's not a very good movie as well, because it's very good indeed. But then, one should expect no less from the man who brought us Down by Law, Mystery Train, Night on Earth and Dead Man. Written by Jarmusch for his star, Forest Whitaker, Ghost Dog tells the story of a solitary New York contract killer who lives on a tenement rooftop in Zen-like simplicity with an impressive arsenal of weaponry, a small shrine, and the sort of electronic gizmos that allow one to break into a car at a moment's notice. He adheres to the priciple of the book "Hagekura: The Way of the Samurai," and for eight years has served as the devoted retainer to an aging mafia foot-soldier named Louie (John Tormey), communicating with him only by carrier pigeon. But after a long string of perfect hits, one of his contracts goes very wrong — Ghost Dog kills a made man, and the don's daughter is a witness. As a matter of mob pride, the don (Henry Silva) orders Ghost Dog killed.

None of which sounds especially weird, not really. But this a Jarmusch film. Ghost Dog is more than a little crazy — after all, he lives on a rooftop and fancies himself a samurai. His only friends are a French-speaking Haitian ice cream vendor with whom he can't converse and, eventually, a little girl he meets in the park who carries a collection of books in her lunchbox. The gangsters at first play like low-rent Scorsese — and soon we see that they are, literally: they don't have enough money to make the rent on their shabby "social club". A lone pitbull keeps popping up like a spirit guide, to sit and stare at Ghost Dog for no reason whatsoever. Ghost Dog and Raymond, the ice cream vendor, spy a man building a boat on a neighboring rooftop (and wonder, in their respective languages, how he's going to get it down from there when it's finished). And the only thing that is ever on television are cartoons, usually of the extremely violent Itchy-and-Scratchy variety.

In previous films, Jarmusch has looked at America through the eyes of a Hungarian (Stranger Than Paradise), an Italian (Down by Law), and a Japanese couple (Mystery Train). In a unique shift, Ghost Dog looks at American culture through the eyes of an American who is living by the ideals of a different, ancient culture. Seeing the world from Ghost Dog's point of view, it makes sense that all of television is a violent cartoon. The constant soundtrack of hip-hop — much of it courtesy of the CDs that Ghost Dog slips into the stereos of the cars he steals — is simultaneously soothing with its repetitive rhythms and disturbing with its graphic and tragic lyrics, another indication of Ghost Dog's outlook on the society through which he drifts, disconnected.

Ghost Dog brings to mind many of the classic contract-killer movies — as I watched the film, Charles Bronson's performance in The Mechanic kept coming to mind — but it also pays homage to Kurosawa, and to classic Westerns like High Noon. Whitaker's Ghost Dog is the classic solitary hero, silently heroic and tragically doomed because of his single-minded adherence to his own personal code of ethics. By film's end, no one but the viewer truly understands why Ghost Dog made the decisions that he did, driving home Jarmusch's themes of communication (the story collection Rashomon is integral to to the plot, in addition to the ice cream vendor and the use of carrier pigeons) and honor.

Forest Whitaker is superb as Ghost Dog, exhibiting lumbering grace and quiet dignity combined with the lethal self-assuredness of a contract killer. An excellent crew of actors fill out the other roles, including Silva, Cliff Gorman and Isaach De Bankolé as Raymond. But Ghost Dog really belongs to Whitaker, who seems to single-handedly strip the usual Jarmusch pretensions from the film, delivering a quiet, poetic performance that is as impressive as it is simple.

Artisan's DVD edition of Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) with audio in Dolby Digital 5.1, and features include outtakes, an isolated score, trailers and TV spots, a music video (the song is called "Cakes," but the band is left unidentified and the song doesn't appear in the end credits) and a 30-minute "making-of" featurette, "The Odyssey: The Journey into the Life of a Samurai."

— Dawn Taylor

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