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Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

Theatrical poster
Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Produced by Richard Guay
Jim Jarmusch
Written by Jim Jarmusch
Starring Forest Whitaker
Music by RZA
Cinematography Robby Müller
Editing by Jay Rabinowitz
Distributed by Channel Four Films
Release date(s) May 18, 1999
Running time 116 min
Country United States
Language English
Budget US$2 000 000

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is a 1999 samurai action film written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. Forest Whitaker stars as the title character, the mysterious "Ghost Dog", an African-American hitman in the employ of the Mafia, who follows the ancient code of the samurai as outlined in the book of Yamamoto Tsunetomo's recorded sayings, Hagakure.

Contents

Plot

Ghost Dog (Whitaker) sees himself as a retainer of Louie (John Tormey), a local mobster, who saved Ghost Dog's life years ago and while living as a hired hitman for the Italian Mafia, he strictly follows Hagakure.

Louie tells Ghost Dog to kill a gangster who is sleeping with the daughter of the mafia boss Vargo (Henry Silva). However, Ghost Dog kills the man in the girl's presence. The mobsters decide to get rid of Ghost Dog to cover up their involvement. Louie knows practically nothing about Ghost Dog, and the hitman communicates only by homing pigeon. The mobsters start by tracing all the pigeon coops in town. They find Ghost Dog's cabin atop a building and kill his pigeons. Ghost Dog realizes he must kill the entire mafia or otherwise they will kill him and his master.

During the day, Ghost Dog frequently visits the park to see his best friend, a Haitian ice cream salesman named Raymond (Isaach De Bankolé) who speaks only French. Ghost Dog doesn't understand French and Raymond doesn't understand English, but the two seem to understand each other. One of the recurring events in the film is a running gag when Ghost Dog and Raymond talk: one of them says something and the other, having not understood a word, rephrases it in his own language.

Ghost Dog also makes friends with a little girl named Pearline (Camille Winbush), to whom he lends a book — Rashōmon and Other Stories — he received from Vargo's daughter. Paralleling a major theme of Rashōmon, Louie and Ghost Dog have different accounts of the circumstances of their meeting: in Louie's flashback, we see him shoot Ghost Dog's attacker in self-defense, while in Ghost Dog's flashback, Louie shoots the attacker just as the attacker is about to kill Ghost Dog.

Eventually, Ghost Dog attacks Vargo's mansion single-handedly and kills almost everyone he encounters, sparing only Louie and Vargo's daughter. Though Louie feels some loyalty to Ghost Dog, he also feels that he must avenge the murder of boss Vargo, but it was stated that Vargo's daughter ordered him to murder Ghost Dog. Louie finally confronts Ghost Dog at Raymond's ice cream stand with Raymond and Pearline watching, after he has given to the latter his copy of the Hagakure. Ghost Dog is unwilling to attack his master and allows Louie to kill him. His last act is to give Louie the copy of Rashōmon and encourage him to read it.

Production

The film was shot mostly in Jersey City, New Jersey, but the movie never mentions where the story is set. License plates reveal it is in "The Industrial State".[1]

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Cartoons

Cartoons are also used as a metaphor to scene or plot dynamics:

  • Handsome Frank watches a cartoon featuring Betty Boop corralling her pigeons moments before Ghost Dog, a fellow pigeon raiser, arrives to assassinate him. Ghost Dog is later seen handling his pigeons in the same manner as Betty.
  • Boss Vargo watches a Felix the Cat cartoon wherein the Professor voices his frustration at capturing the elusive Felix and his magic bag, mirroring the mafia's inability to find and eliminate Ghost Dog, who carries his weapons and equipment in a black briefcase.
  • Vargo and his daughter, Louise, watch a Woody Woodpecker cartoon in the car, immediately after Ghost Dog has been distracted by a woodpecker whilst sniping in the woods. The cartoon features a staring and intimidation contest between Woody and the Grim Reaper. This can symbolize both the conflict between Ghost Dog and the mafia, as well as the personal conflict between Vargo and his daughter.
  • During the mansion shootout, Louise watches a black and white cartoon wherein a hunted moose takes cover, then through the aid of hammerspace, pulls a gun on his attacker and overpowers him.
  • Louise watches an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon in the car where Itchy overkills the corpse of Scratchy, while Vinny bleeds to death in the front seat.
  • Valerio's bodyguard watches a cartoon where a police officer fires up a drain pipe and the bullets flood out through the shower, pelting the suspect. This mirrors the way that Ghost Dog assassinates Sonny Valerio.
  • In the second to last scene, Louise watches an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon where the eponymous duo duel with progressively larger revolvers, until their actions eventually destroy an opponent, mirroring how the events of the film eventually killed Ghost Dog.

Reception

Critical response to the film was largely positive. On the Rotten Tomatoes review site, the film received an 81% "Certified Fresh" rating. The critical consensus was that the movie is "An innovative blend of samurai and gangster lifestyles."[2] The film was nominated for a few awards but did not win any of them. Among the nominations were the César Award for Best Foreign Film on 2000[3] and the Palme d'Or award at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival.[4] The film grossed a worldwide total of $9,380,473, of which $3,308,029 was in the United States.[5]

Cast

Casting notes

  • Gary Farmer is credited as playing a character named "Nobody", the same name of his character in Jarmusch's 1995 western Dead Man. After he is confronted by some mob hitmen on his roof, Nobody repeats one of his lines from Dead Man: "stupid fucking white man!"
  • Forest Whitaker's younger brother Damon Whitaker plays the role of the young Ghost Dog in the flashback sequences.

Soundtrack

The Japanese release of the soundtrack album has different tracks from the US release.

The film's score and soundtrack is the first produced by the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA.

US and Japanese versions of the soundtrack album have been released, each with a different set of tracks. The Japanese release also has some songs not in the film.[6] Songs in the film that don't appear on either soundtrack album include From Then Till Now performed by Killah Priest, Armagideon Time performed by Willi Williams, Nuba One performed by Andrew Cyrille and Jimmy Lyons and Cold Lampin With Flavor performed by Flavor Flav.[7]

Cultural references

  • The film has been interpreted by critics as an homage to Le Samouraï, a 1967 crime-drama by Jean-Pierre Melville starring Alain Delon. That movie opens with a quote from an invented Book of Bushido and features a meditative, loner hero, Jef Costello. In the same manner that Ghost Dog has an electronic "key" to break into luxury cars, Costello has a huge ring of keys that enable him to steal any Citroën DS.[8][9] The endings share a key similarity. Moreover, the peculiar relationship between the heroes of both movies and birds, companions and danger advisers, is another common point.
  • The story of Ghost Dog is also similar to that of the heroic bloodshed film The Killer (itself also a homage to Le Samourai).
  • The film contains a number of references to Seijun Suzuki's Branded to Kill, such as when a bird lands in front of Ghost Dog's rifle scope, referencing the incident with a butterfly in Suzuki's film.[10] Ghost Dog shooting Sonny Valerio up the drain pipe is taken directly from Branded to Kill.
  • The movie was adapted into a role-playing game by Canadian game publisher Guardians of Order. The game focused on two person (one player and one Game Master) group play and resource information about the movie and the real-life Mafia.[11]
  • Ghost Dog drives past a club called the 'Liquid Sword'; this is a reference to the GZA album, "Liquid Swords".
  • Ghost Dog buys pigeon food in a store called 'Birdland'. Birdland is also the name of a famous jazz club named after Charlie Parker, nicknamed Bird. Forest Whitaker played Parker in the 1988 film Bird.

References

  1. ^ "Cold Warrior Jeannette Catsoulis on Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai". reverse shot. 2005. http://www.reverseshot.com/legacy/dogdays05/ghostdog.html. Retrieved 2006-10-13.  
  2. ^ "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai". Rotten Tomatoes. 1999. http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/ghost_dog_the_way_of_the_samurai/. Retrieved 2006-08-30.  
  3. ^ "Awards for Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai". Internet Movie Database. 2001. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0165798/awards. Retrieved 2006-08-30.  
  4. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai". festival-cannes.com. http://www.festival-cannes.com/en/archives/ficheFilm/id/5324/year/1999.html. Retrieved 2009-10-06.  
  5. ^ "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai". Box Office Mojo. 2006. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=ghostdog.htm. Retrieved 2006-08-30.  
  6. ^ "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai". Soundtrack Collector. 1999. http://www.soundtrackcollector.com/catalog/soundtrackdetail.php?movieid=45896. Retrieved 2006-10-12.  
  7. ^ "Soundtracks for Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai". Internet Movie Database. 1999. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0165798/soundtrack. Retrieved 2006-09-06.  
  8. ^ "Into the Void". Village Voice. March 2000. http://www.villagevoice.com/film/0009,hoberman2,12881,20.html. Retrieved 2007-12-06.  
  9. ^ "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (2000) Reel Review". Reel.com. http://www.reel.com/movie.asp?MID=129128&buy=open&Tab=reviews&CID=13. Retrieved 2007-12-06.  
  10. ^ Wilonsky, Robert (March 23, 2000). "The Way of Jim Jarmusch". Miami New Times. http://www.miaminewtimes.com/content/printVersion/241003. Retrieved May 7, 2009.  
  11. ^ David L. Pulver & John R. Python, Jr. Ghost Dog Role-Playing Game and Resource Book. ISBN 1-894525-02-7.  

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