Related Articles: Movies, All

The Pensive Hitman

Jim Jarmusch's latest film is slow but satisfying

At first glance, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai does not seem like your regular Jim Jarmusch fare. The title raises a quizzical brow as does the marketed subject matter -- martial arts, mafioso, and the urban landscape. But as the film opens you immediately realize that, yes, this is a Jarmusch film; the cinematography, the quirky characters and the explicit use of music all combine to offer us the director's newest, albeit fairly mainstream, film.
The film looks at the life of Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker), a solitary contract killer who follows the Samurai ethics and philosophy, as they are outlined in the Hagakure, an 18th century text. Ghost Dog's best friends are his brood of carrier pigeons (of which we see way too much throughout the film) and the jovial Haitian ice cream vendor Raymond. However, Ghost Dog's central relationship is with Louie (John Tormey), a small-time mobster who once saved his life.

Acting on orders from his boss, Vargo (played exquisitely by Henry Silva), Louie hires Ghost Dog to kill fellow mafioso Handsome Frank (Richard Portnow), who's screwing the boss's crazy daughter Louise (Tricia Vessey). Ghost Dog does the job, but the girl is there to witness it all and, thus, things go awry. The petty mobsters need to save some face and cover their tracks, so Ghost Dog becomes their new target. While he fends off the hitmen, Ghost Dog sustains his pensive nature with readings from the Hagakure. Amidst the blotched assassination attempts and counterpoint killing are poignant scenes with Raymond, Louie, and a young girl who befriends him in the park.

The crux of Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is not mob business or urban violence, but a meditation on the relationships between various seemingly different cultures. The term "meditate" should be emphasized. The film has a slow, cont.plative movement, similar to Ghost Dog himself, which is sustained by the melodic soundtrack, composed by The RZA of Wu Tang Clan, and Jarmusch's smooth camerawork. Meanwhile, the film is spliced with esoteric quotes from the Hagakure that contribute to the film as much as they take away from it.

Despite its dreary philosophical offerings,Ghost Dog contains a good deal of witty humor. The bumbling, aging mobsters provide .ple fodder for our amusement. There are several classic scenes that illustrate Jarmusch's talent for creating eccentric, well-developed characters. All the actors do an amazing job with their roles, particularly, Whitaker, de Bankole, and Gorman. The film also blends the director's off-beat style into three different genres fairly well. Although it is not a typical Jim Jarmusch feature, it's accessible enough to keep you interested, but still odd enough to engage those familiar with his work.


Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
rated R
1 hour 56 minutes

Forest Whitaker
John Tormey
Henry Silva
Cliff Gorman
Tricia Vessey
Isaach de Bankole
Richard Portnow