GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI (Jarmusch, 1999)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Nov 17, 2020
Critics who thought they had Jim Jarmusch safely categorized as a wry humorist and a minimalist observer of outsiders and “dead-end kids” (as Pauline Kael described the protagonists of “Stranger Than Paradise”) were forced to scramble when the revisionist Western “Dead Man” (1995) introduced shocking new elements to the writer/director's arsenal. Periodically erupting in graphic violent outbursts, “Dead Man” pointed an accusing middle finger at the “stupid fucking white men” who engineered a mass genocide against Native Americans, a slaughter so cruel and so vast it permanently scarred the landscape itself.
Jarmusch stayed in his new bloody lane with his next feature, “Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai” (1999). Now the stupid fucking white men are wheezing dollar-store mafiosos, old men who can barely climb a set of stairs or scrape together enough money to pay the landlord at their little clubhouse where they mostly watch cartoons. But the single defining truism about American life as portrayed in both “Dead Man” and “Ghost Dog” is that any stupid fuck can pull a trigger.
Like the mobsters, the film's title character adheres to an old code of behavior, but unlike them, he's put a great deal of thought into his guiding philosophy. Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) reads daily from the “Hagakure”, a book of samurai aphorisms he uses to shape his idiosyncratic approach to being a modern-day hitman. Ghost Dog samples freely from diverse sources of wisdom as well, including Mary Shelley's “Frankenstein”, Ryunosuke Akutagawa's short-story collection “Rashomon”, and modern hip-hop - RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan provides the film's propulsive, hypnotic score, and it seems like Ghost Dog can hear every non-diegetic note. And talk about keeping it old school, Ghost Dog even sends messages exclusively by homing pigeon.
Plot rarely matters much in a Jarmusch film, but to provide a brief capsule: Ghost Dog serves as a loyal retainer to low-level mobster Louie (John Tormey). While conducting a hit for Louie, something goes awry, and the other mobsters decide the assassin must be eliminated. To serve honor, or some such nonsense. This confrontation augurs poorly for the aging made men, of course – hell, Ghost Dog even knows how to shoot his mark from the other end of a kitchen sink drain – but Jarmusch lavishes as much attention on Ghost Dog's down time as on his killing exploits.
Ghost Dog likes to hang out with his friend Raymond (Isaach de Bankole), an affable Haitian ice-cream truck vendor who only speaks French. Ghost Dog only speaks English (or at least no French) but this doesn't interfere with their ability to understand each other. The spoken word is only one limited form of communication, a theme Jarmusch had already touched on in “Mystery Train” (1989) and other films. The efficient killer also bonds with Pearline (Camille Winbush), a nine-year-old bookworm who instinctively seems to “get” Ghost Dog.
The film piles up both bodies and humorous vignettes. In a hilarious display of a lack of self-awareness, a couple of the mobsters (including a stoic Henry Silva whose face is fixed in a rictus) mock both black hip-hop artists and Native Americans for adopting “funny” names like Flavor Flav or Red Cloud before calling out for their compatriots Joey Rags and Sammy the Snake. In the film's signature execution, Sonny Valerio (Cliff Gorman) dances alone in his bathroom while singing along to Public Enemy before Ghost Dog takes him out with one laser-pointer shot to the head.
The great cinematographer Robby Muller captures the moody night-time city streets (possibly meant to be New York, though mostly filmed in Jersey City) with an impressionist eye, employing multiple dissolves to show Ghost Dog gliding through the streets in his unique fashion, largely undetected by the locals, perhaps moving to the pervasive beat of RZA's driving score. The film's visual centerpiece, however, is Forest Whitaker's face, his drooping left eyelid (a congenital condition) drawing even more attention to the magnetic power of his gaze. Ghost Dog sees all from a serene vantage point, simultaneously positioned right at street level but also observing dispassionately from a spiritual plane at least once-removed.
Though the film pokes fun at its clueless, impotent mobsters, it still ends with a lament for the mutual obsolescence of both the way of the mafioso and the “way of the samurai.” As Ghost Dog puts it when he confronts Louie at the end, they both come from “different ancient tribes” now staring down the barrel of a new millennium that has no use for either of them.
Video:The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. From Criterion: “This new digital transfer was created in 16-bit 4K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director film scanner from the 35 mm original A/B camera negative” and was supervised by Jarmusch. The only other North American release I'm aware of is the 2003 SD release by Artisan. The colors on that one look a bit garish while this 1080p transfer showcases more muted, naturalistic colors. The image resolution is sharp and looks great in motion.
Audio:The DTS- HD 5.1 Master Audio mix treats sound effects well while also presenting RZA's score with depth. The disc also provides an audio option to listen just to the isolated score in a 2.0 mix. Optional English subtitles support the audio.
Extras:This Criterion Blu-ray release includes both new and older supplementary features.
As with a few past Jarmusch releases from Criterion, we get a lengthy Q&A session (84 minutes) with the director. He fields a random array of questions sent in by fans, touching on topics from the production of the film to what music he's been listening to during the pandemic and so on. This was recorded in June 2020.
Another new feature is a video conference interview (20 min.) with actors Forest Whitaker and Isaach de Bankole, conducted by film scholar Michael B. Gillespie. Again they cover an array of topics, though mostly centering on their memories of making “Ghost Dog” a little more than twenty years ago.
Criterion has also included an audio feature (15 min.) in which casting director Ellen Lewis discusses her process for auditioning various actors for roles. This turned out to be quite fascinating, especially because Lewis is clearly passionate about the casting even of minor roles in the film. It feels like she talks about virtually everybody who appears in the movie.
We also get two older interviews, which, though separate, are taken from the same taping session with Jarmusch, Whitaker, and composer RZA. The first is a 15-minute interview. The second is a 21-minute promotional piece titled “The Odyssey: A Journey Into the Life of a Samurai” which was included on the old DVD release from Artisan Pictures.
The disc also includes a short interview (5 min.) with Shifu Shi Yan Ming, martial arts teacher and founder of the USA Shaolin Temple. He's friends with both Jarmusch and RZA.
We also get a 15-minute piece about the music of “Ghost Dog” along with several short Deleted Scenes/Outtakes (5 min. total) and a Theatrical Trailer (1 min.)
Criterion has included two insert booklets this time. The 40-page booklet includes essays by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and Greg Tate, as well as excerpts from a 2000 interview with Jarmusch, conducted by Ted Lippy. We also get a tiny replica of the “Hagakure”, featured so prominently in the film, though this just includes a few short excerpts from the book.
Film Value:“Ghost Dog” has been in need of a quality high-def release for some time now, and Criterion delivers the goods with a sharp 1080p transfer and a strong collection of extra features.