Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
★★★ / ★★★★
A mercenary named Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) is sent by his boss, Louie (John Tormey), who once saved his life in an alley, to kill Handsome Frank (Richard Portnow) because he is sexually involved with the daughter of a head mobster. The problem is, everyone had assumed that the girl, Louise (Tricia Vassey), was not going to be with Handsome Frank at the time of the murder. She witnesses the cold-blooded killing and Mr. Vargo (Henry Silva) is livid. The head mobster demands Louie to give up the man he sent to do perform the job or risk being killed himself.
“Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai,” written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, combines two sub-genres found in the opposite spectrum: gangster pictures and samurai film. What is created is an original and inspired product about what it means to be a killer but a man of honor, a recluse who is capable of connecting with others in unexpected ways.
It can be argued that the material is influenced by Quentin Tarantino’s work in that the writer-director is not afraid to allow individual scenes to run longer than they should. This is best captured during the scene when Louie is summoned by his superiors to discuss his source’s mistake and why he has to be neutralized. Louie sits on one side of the table, nervous but trying not to show it, and the other three do not even crack a smile. It starts off scary, then awkward, and, finally, sort of amusing. The mobsters think Ghost Dog’s name is inspired by rappers on television and the radio.
And then there are scenes that one might think should not be in the movie at all. After all, it is supposed to be about the hunt for the title character and, eventually, his choice on whether to fight back against those who have pushed him into a corner.
Ghost Dog meeting his best friend (Isaach De Bankolé), an ice cream man who speaks only French and does not understand English (nor does Ghost Dog understand a word of French), and a little girl named Pearline (Camille Winbush) allows us to get a feel and explore the hidden depths and alleys of a complicated character. Especially touching is his relationship with Pearline. As avid readers, they talk about and recommend each other books. Through this common interest, they are able to understand each other even though they come from very different age groups. He does not talk down to her.
I appreciated that the material chooses not to put the child in danger for the sake of getting a reaction out of Ghost Dog and the audience. Under more typical hands, she would have been kidnapped by the gangsters eventually and he would have had to rescue her. Instead, Pearline talking about the books stored in her lunchbox is enough to establish how much the main character values his relationship with her. Like the great samurai movies, it understands the art of restraint.
The violence, coupled with a lack of score or soundtrack, is suspenseful and efficient. Even though our protagonist is up against older gentlemen, there is danger because we get a sense that the men in suits know exactly what they are doing. I flinched every time a gun silencer exhales and the bullet punctures the target’s forehead. It shows violence for what it is.