Combustible Celluloid
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With: Forest Whitaker, John Tormey, Cliff Gorman, Frank Minucci, Richard Portnow, Tricia Vessey, Henry Silva, Gene Ruffini, Frank Adonis, Victor Argo
Written by: Jim Jarmusch
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence and language
Running Time: 116
Date: 05/17/1999

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (2000)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Masters and Masterworks

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Sometimes a movie gets you so bad that you need to tell people how excited you are about it. You want to use special words that all too often get used up in describing lesser movies. But I can think of no other word to sum up Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai other than to say that it is a Masterpiece.

Jarmusch works fairly slowly, with only eight pictures in nearly twenty years, but he has always been in complete command of them. He has a definite and personal style, and he has advanced emotionally and technically with every film. His first two big films, Stranger Than Paradise (1984) and Down By Law (1986) were amazing and even ground-breaking. They used long, still shots (sometimes without any dialogue), bleak black-and-white film, and equally bleak landscapes. The characters were banal and empty. But the films were insightful, hilarious, and above all, highly original.

But he seemed to work only in episodes. After his next two films, Mystery Train (1989) and Night on Earth (1992), some of us started to worry if Jarmusch could tell a complete story. Then came the astonishing Dead Man (1996) which was too slow for most viewers, but paid off for those who stayed. It was the first sign that Jarmusch could be a master, someone like Michelangelo Antonioni or Orson Welles.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai goes even further. With his story of a modern black urban samurai, Jarmusch brings the methodical rhythm of life from the old west to New York City. We meet Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) who spends his time working as a hit man, feeding his carrier pigeons, and reading samurai literature (The Hagakure), which is not only narrated to us but also printed on the screen. His "master" Louie (John Tormey) is a member of a sort of low-rent Italian Mafia (led by Henry Silva) and saved Ghost Dog's life when he was younger. Ghost Dog's hits are so practiced and systematic that he's never caught and never leaves a trace. He has an electronic device for stealing cars that turns off alarms and starts ignitions. He then drives around, his big hood over his head, listening to hip-hop CD's (music by The RZA from Wu-Tang Clan). He's like a floating bubble of coolness, thought, and serenity. But, due to a misunerstanding, Ghost Dog must go to war against the aging gangsters. As he put the western to sleep with Dead Man, Jarmusch seems to be doing the same to the gangster film with Ghost Dog.

The movie has many small moments that make us laugh but seem connected to some larger world, a much larger story that goes on outside of our line of vision and that we can only grasp a little bit of. A mysterious dog is seen twice just staring at Ghost Dog, unable to communicate what it's thinking. In another scene, Ghost Dog watches a young hoodlum sneaking up on an old man carrying a bag of groceries. The old man unexpectedly kung-fus the hood, who skulks away in pain and shame. Nobody (Gary Farmer) from Dead Man has a small cameo and gets to repeat his great line of dialogue, a little present for those few fans of that movie. And the cars that Ghost Dog steals have license plate numbers that start with the letters Z, Y, and X... the alphabet backwards.

One of the movie's most magical scenes shows Ghost Dog's best friend, a French-speaking ice-cream vendor (Isaach de Bankole), taking Ghost Dog up to his roof to examine the view of another man building a large boat on his rooftop. The Frenchman calls to him, but the boat man only speaks Spanish and mentions that he must get back to work. It's a spectacular scene that speaks volumes about New York, communication, and life's purpose.

Ghost Dog was photographed by the great Robby Muller (Dead Man, Breaking the Waves, Wings of Desire, Repo Man) who makes New York feel like the dusty towns of Sergio Leone's westerns, or the grimy cities of Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai (1967), but with moments of enlightenment and hope, as in the "boat" scene.

I'm sure Jarmusch was intending to make something like Rashomon, a book that gets passed around from character to character (Akira Kurosawa made his version in 1950). As with that story, he wanted everyone to see something different in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Some of us would remember the staring dog. Others will have hope that the little girl (Camille Winbush) will embark on the samurai life. Others will wonder if ice cream really has a lot of calcium or not. I usually rely on both my emotional and intellectual reactions and my memory when writing about a movie. With Ghost Dog, I know that I haven't solved all the puzzles, but I know that they're there. I haven't yet unscrambled why this movie made me feel sad, hopeful, happy, lost, and scared. Maybe I never will. But I do know that the movie effected me in that way that very few other movies do.

Twenty years after I wrote the above, breathless review, the Criterion Collection has released the movie on DVD and Blu-ray. Jarmusch supervised and approved the transfer, and it looks amazing, warmer than I remembered it, and the score absolutely pulses. It includes an incredible number of bonus features, including an alternate isolated stereo music track, a new, long Q&A with Jarmusch, in which he responds to questions sent in by fans, a new conversation (over Zoom) between actors Forest Whitaker and Isaach De Bankolé, moderated by film scholar Michael B. Gillespie; a new interview with casting director Ellen Lewis, and a new interview with Shifu Shi Yan Ming, founder of the USA Shaolin Temple. There's a new video essay on RZA's score, deleted scenes and outtakes, archival interviews, and a trailer. The liner notes book contains essays by critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and Greg Tate, and a 2000 interview with Jarmusch. A little fold-out booklet including quotations from Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai is also included. This is highly recommended.

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