Ghost Dog The Way of the Samurai

USA/Japan/France/Germany 1999

Reviewed by Xan Brooks


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

The US, the present. Ghost Dog keeps pigeons, consults the samurai code Hagakure and works as an assassin for the Mob. He has two friends: Raymond, a Haitian ice-cream vendor, and Pearline, a bookish little girl he meets in the park. Ghost Dog is commissioned by Mob foot-soldier Louie to kill another gangster, Handsome Frank, who is having an affair with Louise, the niece of Mafia don Vargo. But when Louise witnesses the hit, Vargo and his underboss Sonny decide Ghost Dog must be killed.

Aided by a reluctant Louie, Sonny and Vargo send their goons to Ghost Dog's home where they destroy his pigeon coop and shoot a man by mistake. Ghost Dog tracks down Louie but refuses to kill him because his samurai code forbids a retainer from killing his master. Later, he drives out to Vargo's country home where he kills his guards and shoots the don as Louise sits watching. Returning home, he also shoots two hunters who have killed a bear out of season. He then kills Sonny. Ghost Dog travels to the park and gives his Hagakure book to Pearline and his personal effects to Raymond. Louie arrives and Ghost Dog allows himself to be shot dead. At home, Pearline begins reading Hagakure.


Jim Jarmusch once remarked that his films are made up of the bits that other film-makers would cut out of their movies. His pictures have traditionally been comprised of the time between big events, the moments when the characters are either in transit or idling in a lugubrious neutral. The inhabitants of Down by Law are prison break-outs with no particular place to go. In Mystery Train the setting is the low-rent hotel where a crop of Memphis tourists cool their heels. In Night on Earth a series of taxi cabs ferry their respective passengers between points A and B. At its best, Jarmusch's work circles so deliberately around conventional Hollywood notions of drama as to evolve a new drama all of its own.

What is one to make, then, of Ghost Dog The Way of the Samurai? Face it head-on and this urban thriller signals a startling volte-face. Where Jarmusch used to score his films to avant-garde punk or white guitar music (his last picture, The Year of the Horse, was a documentary on old friend and collaborator Neil Young), Ghost Dog comes powered by a spare, trip-hop soundtrack from Wu Tang Clan frontman RZA. And where Jarmusch's previous pictures were contemplative and unimpeded by straightforward narration, Ghost Dog teems with action. Its lead character is a hitman hounded by the Mob. Its body count is epic. It builds to a Scarface-style shoot-out. It is, in short, a very different breed of Jarmusch movie.

Except it's not really. Much as he did with his unloved but ambitious Western Dead Man, Jarmusch has taken hold of a genre template and remade it in his own image, sprinkling in some incongruous ingredients. As a result, Ghost Dog comes across as an eccentric salad of styles (a hip-hop Mafia samurai thriller, no less), its core pure Jarmusch. This, it turns out, is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, Ghost Dog is underpinned by the film-maker's familiar blend of warmth and cool-eyed distance, a mix as disarming as it is eccentric. It allows Jarmusch to poke gentle fun at his characters (and much of Ghost Dog is very funny) while simultaneously regarding them with a genuine affection. In this, he is helped by some fine performances, most notably from Henry Silva's gimlet-eyed Mob boss and Forest Whitaker's stoic, soulful hitman with a heart - stereotypes but likeable ones, with just enough kinks to keep them interesting.

But in its broader picture, Ghost Dog can be frustratingly lazy. The transplanting of old eastern codes to the present-day west is a device that's been attempted by everyone from John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) to Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Samuraï, 1967) to John Frankenheimer (Ronin), but in adopting the same tack Jarmusch instigates a debate he can't quite resolve. Ghost Dog offers some intriguing insights on the melting-pot US, a place where Sicilian mobsters mouth Flavor Flav lyrics and the black underclass study Japanese philosophy. But it complicates matters by drawing a link between both old-school Mafia codes and ancient samurai honour and (more crucially) between black urban culture and ancient samurai honour. The first link is credible; the second less so. Jarmusch offers no illumination as to why Ghost Dog feels an affinity with samurai teachings, nor why he insists on passing those teachings on to an Afro-American child. Instead, he tosses in bland Hollywood shorthand. Ghost Dog is black, ergo he is soulful.

Not that Jarmusch has ever been known for his rigour, and Ghost Dog is no exception. This is a picture by turns amusing and melancholic, sweet-centred and dark-edged. Jarmusch clearly finds observations easier than analysis, and the trip more satisfying than the destination. Ghost Dog's shoot-out is not a climax; just another port of call in its creator's endless voyage around himself.


Jim Jarmusch
Richard Guay
Jim Jarmusch
Jim Jarmusch
Director of Photography
Robby Müller
Jay Rabinowitz
Production Designer
Ted Berner
©Plywood Productions, Inc.
Production Companies
JVC/Le Studio Canal+ and BAC Films present in association with Pandora Film/ARD-Degeto Film a Plywood production
Diana Schmidt
Production Supervisors
Lonnie Kandel
Victor DeJesus
Unit Production Manager
Diana Schmidt
Location Manager
Ged Dickersin
Post-production Supervisors
Gabrielle Mahon
Stacey Smith
Assistant Directors
Jude Gorjanc
Cindy Craig
Jessica Piscitelli
Script Supervisor
Chiemi Karasawa
Ellen Lewis
Laura Rosenthal
Story Consultant
Sara Driver
Camera Operator
Chaim Kantor
Steadicam Operator
Rick Raphael
Wescam Operator
David Norris
Special Effects
Drew Jiritano
Art Director
Mario Ventenilla
Set Decorator
Ronnie Von Blomberg
Costume Designer
John Dunn
Wardrobe Supervisors
David Davenport
Amy S. Habacker
Judy Chin
Special Effects Make-up
Neal Martz
Cliff Booker
Title Design
Balsmeyer & Everett, Inc
Digital/Optical Effects
Don Nolan
The Effects House
John Furniotis
Film Effects
Music Editor
Jay Rabinowitz
"Ice-Cream (Instrumental mix)" by Robert Diggs, Corey Woods, arranged by RZA, featuring Ghostface Killah, Cappadonna, Raekwon; "Fast Shadow" by/arranged by RZA, featuring Wu-Tang Clan; "Raise Your Sword (Samurai Showdown)" by/arranged/performed by RZA; "From Then till Now" by Walter Reed, Earnest Aye, D. Black, J. Barry, W. Warwick, performed by Killah Priest; "Armagideon Time" by Willie Williams, Clement Dodd, performed by Willie Williams; "Nuba One" by Andrew Cyrille, Jeanne Lee, performed by Andrew Cyrille, Jimmy Lyons; "Cold Lampin with Flavor" by William Drayton, Hank Shocklee, Eric Sandler, performed by Public Enemy
Sound Mixer
Drew Kunin
Chic Ciccolini III
Re-recording Mixer
Dom 'The Dominator' Tavella
Keith Culbertson
Dialogue Editor
Thomas A. Gulino
Sound Effects Editors
Chic Ciccolini III
Daniel Pagan
Alex Raspa
Joan Chamberlain
David Boulton
Ann Hadsell
Jason Canovas
Brian Vancho
Ryan Collison
Joseph Dohner
Yvette Nabel
Philosophical Consultant
Jim Sotet
Gun Consultant
Alfredo Martinez
Stunt Co-ordinators
Jeff Ward
Manny Siverio
Norman Douglass
Animal Wrangler
Steve McAuliff
Forest Whitaker
Ghost Dog
John Tormey
Louie Bonacelli
Cliff Gorman
Sonny Valerio
Henry Silva
Ray Vargo
Isaach de Bankolé
Tricia Vessey
Louise Vargo
Victor Argo
Gene Ruffini
old consigliere
Richard Portnow
Handsome Frank
Camille Winbush
Pearline, the little girl
Dennis Liu
Chinese restaurant owner
Frank Minucci
Big Angie
Frank Adonis
Valerio's bodyguard
Damon Whitaker
young Ghost Dog
Kenny Guay
boy in window
Vince Viverito
Johnny Morini
Gano Grills
Touché Cornel
Jamie Hector
gangstas in red
Chuck Jeffreys
Yan Ming Shi
Kung Fu master
Vinnie Vella
Sammy the Snake
Joe Rigano
Joe Rags
Roberto López
Salvatore Alagna
Jerry Todisco
punks in alley
Dreddy Kruger
Timbo King
Clay Da Raider
Dead and Stinking
Deflon Sallahr
rappers in blue
Gary Farmer
Clebert Ford
José Rabelo
rooftop boatbuilder
Jerry Sturiano
Tony Rigo
Alfred Nittoli
Angel Caban
social club landlord
Luz Valentin
girl in silver
Rene Bluestone
Jordan Peck
club couples
Jonathan Cook
Tracy Howe
bear hunters
Harry Shearer
voice of Scratchy
Vanessa Hollingshead
female sheriff
Sharon Angela
blonde with Jaguar
The Rza
samurai in camouflage
Film Four Distributors
10,419 feet
115 minutes 46 seconds
Dolby digital
Colour by
DeLuxe Laboratories
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011