Ghost Dog, The Way of the Samurai (1999), Jim Jarmusch [4/5]
Updated: Sep 20, 2022
When legend of the indie New York scene and "No Wave Cinema" auteur Jim Jarmusch set out to write Ghost Dog, I wish I could have heard him explain the idea to the studios. He must have said something along the lines of imagine Forest Whitaker as a samurai hitman in New Jersey with a Mike Tyson-like penchant for pigeons. We name it two words that make zero sense together like 'ghost dog' or something; for the soundtrack, Wu-Tang Clan.
This outlandish logline belies the poetic weight of a movie that has much to say about the wisdom of ancient honor-based societies, the right (or lack thereof) of people to displace nature, and the strength of friendship in the face of Machiavellian organizations. It conveys all of this with cinematographer Robby Muller's expressionistic minimalism, a style perhaps most known from movies such as Paris, Texas (1984) but done to equally natural affect here. Working with Muller, Jarmusch shoots some of the most unique shootout-action choreography I've seen without expensive John Wick set pieces or Mission Impossible drone shots – it's pared-down, inventive, and highly entertaining.
Whitaker's character, a hulking gunman in a hoodie traversing the industrial spaces of New Jersey, might be mistaken for a common hood in another film, but here, Whitaker is an ascetic monk who reads a tome of spiritual guidance for warriors under the Tokugawa shogunate of 18th Century Japan, the Hagakure.
As the writer and director of the pensive, psychedelic western Dead Man (1995), Jarmusch approaches the western and gangster genres with much more sensitivity than his contemporaries Tarantino or Scorsese. Ghost Dog balances the fun of a weeaboo gangster hitman with solemn poetry; it has consequential things to say about stoicism and spirituality but also knows when to let some profane, wise-guy banter and sociopathic violence of the Goodfellas variety shock and thrill the audience. 4/5, strongly recommend, it is an extremely unique and fun gangster flick from one of the masters of the NY underground.