Director: Jim Jarmusch
Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Forest Whitaker, Henry Silva, John Tormey, Isaach De Bankolé, Camille Winbush, Cliff Gorman, Frank Minucci, Richard Portnow, Tricia Vessey
Country: France, Germany, USA, Japan
Running Time: 116 min.
BBFC Certificate: 15
After reviewing a couple of Jim Jarmusch films over the past year or so and growing to find that my initial assessment of his work as hit and miss leaned closer to the hit side of the phrase, I found myself keen to revisit some of his films. Top on my list was Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, a film I enjoyed but hadn’t seen since its initial VHS/DVD release at the turn of the millennium.
However, when looking to track down a copy, I realised the film didn’t have a Blu-ray release in the UK. Yes, I could have found it streaming somewhere or got hold of a DVD, but the lover of pristine, shiny things in me held out in the hope that Criterion might release their Blu-ray package over here.
Well, Criterion didn’t answer my call, but Studiocanal came to my rescue instead by releasing a new 4K restoration of the film on all formats, including UHD. I’ve still not upgraded to 4K (I’m a projector guy all the way and 4K projectors are still out of my price range) so I got hold of a Blu-ray copy and my thoughts follow.
Ghost Dog sees Forest Whitaker play the titular character, a solitary man who lives in a shack on the roof of a New York block with his beloved homing pigeons. He works as a freelance hitman, exclusively for the mobster Louie (John Tormey).
Ghost Dog strictly follows the code of the samurai, living by the ethos described in the ‘Hagakure’. Due to this, he believes he owes his life to his ‘retainer’, Louie, who is not only his boss but saved him from being killed by street thugs back when he was a teenager (the young Ghost Dog is played in flashback by Forest’s brother, Damon Whittaker).
However, this relationship becomes complicated for both men, when a hit on a member of Louie’s Mafia family doesn’t quite go according to plan. Boss Ray Vargo’s (Henry Silva) daughter witnessed it, meaning the ‘in-house’ killing needs to be hushed up to avoid repercussions.
This leads to Louie being ordered to kill Ghost Dog. Whilst Ghost Dog’s code of honour means he could never kill his retainer and would gladly die for him, Louie doesn’t want to lose his best hitman whom he respects deeply and with whom he also shares an unspoken kinship. Unfortunately, if Louie doesn’t do the deed, it’ll be his head on the chopping block instead.
From that synopsis and the title, those coming to Ghost Dog unawares might be expecting an action-packed, Eastern-inflected crime thriller. However, in the hands of Jim Jarmusch, it’s something rather different. Whilst there are a few cool assassinations and shoot-outs, the writer-director largely uses the setup to explore various themes and ideas in his usual amusingly quirky fashion.
Something Jarmusch particularly enjoys delving into is a clash of cultures. Whilst the samurai philosophy Ghost Dog follows is taken quite seriously and the Hagakure passages narrated to the audience often reflect what’s happening in the story, less respect is shown to the Italian-American mafia way of life. The mobsters here are old, out-of-touch and struggling to keep up with their aged ways. They’re short of money and are losing the respect of those around them. As such, their crime family seems on the way out.
Enjoying life and thriving though is the third culture explored by Jarmusch, the African-Americans living in New York. Whilst the mobsters are shown to be racist and backwards-thinking, the Black community is shown to be creative, intelligent and inclusive. It’s an idyllic image perhaps, but a welcome one that suggests what the future should be in such culturally diverse areas. Ghost Dog’s samurai code reflects this too, despite being a centuries-old way of life. Whereas the Western warrior culture of the mobsters focuses on violence and murder, the Eastern warrior philosophy more broadly looks at how one should best live their life.
The film is not made up of dry philosophising though. As mentioned, there’s a lot of humour in the film, largely coming from the bumbling, out-of-touch behaviour of the mobsters. There’s also a lot of heart too. On top of Ghost Dog’s beloved pigeons, the assassin befriends a precocious young girl, Pearline (Camille Winbush) and enjoys spending time with his French-speaking buddy Raymond (Isaach De Bankolé), despite not understanding a word he says. These relationships, particularly that with Pearline, could potentially get cloying, but Jarmusch sensibly underplays them and adds touches of his signature literate humour.
Also keeping you engaged beyond the relatively simple and conventional narrative are the performances. Some wonderful character actors fill up the ranks (I particularly enjoyed the stony-faced Henry Silva as a mob boss) but it’s Forest Whitaker who most impresses here. Jarmusch always had him in mind for the film. He claims he wouldn’t have proceeded with the project if the actor had said no. Indeed, it’s hard to think of anyone else embodying this role so effectively. He effortlessly shifts from icy-cool, to warm-hearted, to zen-like calm.
Overall, Ghost Dog is another charming, intelligent, free-wheeling gem from Jarmusch. It might not be for everyone but I found the humour, quirky characters and insistence on defying conventions a pleasure to behold.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is out on 4K UHD, Steelbook, Blu-ray, DVD and digital on 23rd October in the UK, released by Studiocanal. I watched the Blu-ray version and it looks gorgeous, with perfect colour balance and pin-sharp details, particularly in the close-ups. The audio is spot-on too.
UHD, Blu-ray & DVD Extras:
– Ghost Dog – The Odyssey: A Journey into the Life of a Samurai
– Deleted Scenes
– Original Trailer
‘Ghost Dog – The Odyssey: A Journey into the Life of a Samurai’ is presented in a typical EPK fashion, but it remains a worthwhile watch. Jarmusch, Whittaker and the RZA discuss the philosophy embedded in the film, its excellent soundtrack and some other aspects of the production. It’s pretty good as EPK pieces go.
The deleted scenes are fun, with one seeing the gangsters discussing their dire financial situation with their accountant. There are also a few alternative cuts of other sequences, including the mobster rapping in the bathroom.
So, whilst Studiocanal’s new release of Ghost Dog is sadly light on extras, what is here is decent and the film and transfer are good enough to warrant a purchase.