An out-of-time transmission from the late 1990s, when auteurs were fully embracing genre and pre-millennium jitters was tossing old artistic certainties out the window, Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is a spectacular oddity that still confounds expectations. Most descriptions try to present it as a kind of rap-samurai mash-up. That’s to be expected, given the prominent place Jarmusch gives the sonic backdrops woven in by RZA and the title character’s highly Wu-Tang-esque name.
Also, mainstream American interest in the Asian action cinema that inspired the likes of Wu-Tang was leading towards the mini-genre of rap-martial arts crossover movies (Andrzej Bartkowiak’s 2000 film Romeo Must Die with Jet Li and DMX being one of the first). But that kind of limited elevator pitch hardly explains what Jarmusch actually puts on screen. In an essay for the book accompanying the new Criterion Collection release, critic Greg Tate notes the “smattering of boos” he heard when seeing it opening weekend in a Times Square theater.
Ghost Dog stars a typically but still authentically soulful Forest Whitaker in the title role as a self-styled samurai who does hits for Louie (John Tormey), a Mafioso who once saved his life. As with almost every story involving assassins, the plot kicks off after a hit goes wrong. After carrying out his assignment to kill a made man, Ghost Dog (as Louie explains to his fellow Mafiosi, “a lot of these Black guys, they got names like that”) discovers a surprise in the man’s room: Louise Vargo (Tricia Vessey), the daughter of Louie’s boss Ray (Henry Silva).
For reasons that, quite honestly, never quite make much sense, even though Ghost Dog spares Louise’s life, the fact that she was there and saw him now means there’s a hit out on the hitman. This leaves Louie caught between his loyalty to his master and to his “retainer”. (Ghost Dog likes to read ancient texts like the Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, and so tends to talk in such archaic terms.)
Cliff Gorman as Sonny Valerio (IMDB)
At this point, most films would become an escalating series of confrontations in which Ghost Dog takes out ever-larger numbers of enemies before finally facing Louie in a final showdown in which vengeance and duty vie with friendship for the upper hand. To some degree, this is what happens. Once Ray’s goons ransack Ghost Dog’s rooftop hideout and kill the pigeons whom he lovingly trains and uses to send and receive messages, his path of righteous revenge is laid out for him.
As ever, though, Jarmusch takes the slow, ambling way there. Still a minimalist by heart, he’s not so rushed into getting to the next scene that he fails to take a side trip, such as insert a short quote from the Hagakure, check out what some characters are watching on TV (mostly old cartoons like Woody Woodpecker and Heckle and Jeckle), or take a winding pass over Jersey City with RZA’s low drum-brush beats in the background.
A relaxed, occasionally spacey movie about solitude and finding one’s place in the world as much as anything, it seems almost as interested in Ghost Dog’s killing work as in the rare connections he makes with other people. There’s little dramatic necessity for his interactions with a French-speaking immigrant ice-cream salesman (bright and buoyant Jarmusch favorite Isaach De Bankole) who considers them great friends, although they share no language or a girl (a young Camille Winbush) with whom he talks about books. But these scenes add a welcome texture to Ghost Dog’s life that has nothing to do with his profession or the shootouts that will determine his ultimate fate.
Part of Ghost Dog‘s texturing is also the web of influences threaded throughout. Jarmusch is unafraid to let the stitching show. He was just as open about his influences in his 1995 neo-Western Dead Man (a movie that RZA, in one of the Criterion interviews, calls out as the movie that made him want to work with Jarmusch), which felt just like what might happen if somebody mixed up William Blake poetry and Neil Young feedback with monochromatic cinematography and Johnny Depp’s cheekbones.
Camille Winbush as Pearline (Criterion)
In Ghost Dog, the Mafiosi are a grab-bag of Martin Scorsese and Abel Ferrara alumni, while the cool attentiveness to Ghost Dog’s professionalism—samurai training rituals that are more like mindfulness exercises, the business man’s briefcase carrying his gun and other tools—ripples with references to Jean-Pierre Melville and Seijun Suzuki. In one stacked reference that compounds cinematic tropes with the unbelievability coursing through some of the plot’s more nonsensical turns, Jarmusch puts a copy of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s Rashomon in the hands of Louise, whose character seems copied from Natalie Portman in Luc Besson’s Léon: The Professional (1994).
But as ever with Jarmusch, the way he mixes these elements make the movie more than the sum of those elements. Similar to how Quentin Tarantino pulls his (albeit denser and somewhat less organic feeling) lattice of references together with his trademark tongue-in-cheek dialogue, Jarmusch drops in deadpan comedic riffs throughout, which undercut the seriousness of the plot and highlight the deeper themes he is pointing towards.
It would be going too far to say that Ghost Dog is a Zen movie. But one of the first Hagakure quotes Jarmusch includes on-screen reads: “Every day without fail one should consider himself as dead.” Later: “It is a good viewpoint to see the world as a dream.”
Sometimes, the message is right there.