Ghost Dog (United States/Germany/France, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai illustrates that, in some bizarre way, artsy films can be subject to the same major flaws that often afflict Hollywood blockbusters. It's typical for a big budget motion picture to ignore logic and consistency in order to boost the level of adrenaline. Ghost Dog, the latest from iconoclast director Jim Jarmusch, commits the same sin, albeit for radically different reasons. Jarmusch is so infatuated with his subject matter and thematic content that he force-feeds his plot through a pair of totally incomprehensible twists (one near the beginning and one at the end) in order to make statements and get things moving in a particular direction. As a result, only the most ardent Jarmusch fan will be able to suspend disbelief, and the movie turns into an exercise in ideas rather than an excursion along a stable narrative route.

There's a lot to like about Ghost Dog. Jarmusch has an interesting idea - comparing and contrasting ancient Japanese culture with that of modern day American gangsters. By romanticizing the Mafia, Jarmusch emphasizes their code of respect. In that way, he is able to view them as an "ancient tribe" and the last of a dying breed. Despite centering on a hit man and being about his single-minded campaign against a crime family, Ghost Dog is more about honor than it is about killing or revenge, and that's where the film gets into trouble. Characters act irrationally just so that Jarmusch can get his point across. For example, near the beginning, a contract is put out on Ghost Dog's life, despite his impeccable record and obvious value to the mob. Why? No credible reason is given, but there wouldn't have been a movie otherwise. This is one of two key instances in the movie when Jarmusch expects us to ignore logic and accept something on faith. But, just as I won't do that for Armageddon I won't do it for Ghost Dog, either.

Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) is a skilled and accomplished hit man who works for Louie (John Tormey), a middle ranking member of the local crime syndicate. The two communicate by the most unorthodox of means: carrier pigeons. When a hit goes wrong because of bad information given to Ghost Dog, the head of the mob, Vargo (Henry Silva), and his right-hand goon, Sonny Valerio (Cliff Gorman), put a contract out on Ghost Dog. Because Louie was ultimately responsible for the botched hit, he fears for his life. So, to protect him, Ghost Dog swings into action, and, wielding his gun like a sword, he begins to track down the men threatening him and Louie, one by one.

The juxtaposition of rules about samurai life (placed on screen through intertitles) with how Ghost Dog applies them is the movie's most successful conceit. Ghost Dog adheres religiously to the Way of the Samurai, as laid out in a book that has become his Bible. "The Way of the Samurai is the way of death," it states. "Meditation on inevitable death should be performed every day." Another lesson is that the samurai must devote his body and soul to his master, to the exclusion of all else. Ghost Dog lives by this creed. Because Louie once saved his life, he regards the gangster as his master, so everything he does during the course of the film is designed to protect Louie, not to save his own life.

The film is a little on the long side, but it's never dull. The revenge element - Ghost Dog hunting down and killing mobsters - forms the core of the story, but it is less compelling than similar situations in recent movies like The Limey and Payback. This is not a high-energy motion picture. In fact, in keeping with the cool, detached attitude one associates with samurai, Jarmusch allows Ghost Dog's tone to become aloof. And, as a means of contradicting the seeming seriousness of the underlying plot, Jarmusch introduces the comedic interplay between Ghost Dog and his good friend, Raymond (Isaach De Bankolé), an ice cream salesman. These two don't understand each other - Ghost Dog speaks only English and Raymond speaks only French, so their exchanges are often amusing, with each of them unwittingly echoing the other.

In the title role, Forest Whitaker underplays the part nicely. He's certainly more successful as a hit man here than he was in 1991's Diary of a Hit Man. The various actors essaying mob guys look like supporting players from "The Sopranos." They basically fill familiar cliches, with personalities just a shade above the level of a caricature. Isaach De Bankolé, who previously worked with Jarmusch in Night on Earth and later appeared in The Keeper, gives an effectively offbeat turn as the English challenged Raymond.

In many ways, Ghost Dog is typical Jarmusch. The director, while admittedly talented, is afflicted with an Oliver Stone-sized ego and his movies often come across as needlessly pretentious. His reputation also outstrips his ability. His last picture, for example, was the exceedingly wretched Year of the Horse, a Neil Young documentary that easily stands as the worst concert movie ever committed to celluloid. Ghost Dog is a huge improvement, but Jarmusch's need to emphasize his involvement through dispensable stylistic flourishes stands out like a sore thumb.

There's certainly a lot to chew on in Ghost Dog. The film is ripe with interesting ideas, social commentary (especially about how violence permeates every aspect of today's world, including cartoons), and other points worth mulling over. Had the plot been better anchored, this would have been a strong, well-rounded film. As it is, many critics will probably willingly overlook the plot holes and rave about the stylistic and thematic elements. I prefer a little more meat, so the best I can muster for this movie is a lukewarm response.

Ghost Dog (United States/Germany/France, 1999)

Director: Jim Jarmusch
Cast: Forest Whitaker, John Tormey, Cliff Gorman, Henry Silva, Isaach De Bankolé, Tricia Vessey, Victor Argo
Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch
Cinematography: Robby Müller
Music: RZA
U.S. Distributor: Artisan Entertainment
Run Time: 1:56
U.S. Release Date: 2000-03-03
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1