Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Forest Whitaker, John Tormey, Cliff Gorman, Henry Silva, Isaach De Bankolé, Tricia Vessey.
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence and language.

Review by Matt Heffernan
April 12, 2000

Jim Jarmusch has been a top independent filmmaker since he won the Cannes Golden Camera award in 1984 for Stranger Than Paradise. He's never made a real commercial film, but now he attempts to finally break into the box office with a straight-ahead action film. Well, as straight-ahead as he can make one.

Forest Whitaker plays Ghost Dog, a self-proclaimed samurai that lives in an inner-city penthouse shack. While he doesn't have his nose buried in Hagakure, he gets work as a hitman for a mobster named Louie (John Tormey). One assignment is to kill a big-time mafioso, but the plan goes awry when the daughter (Tricia Vessey) of a boss (Henry Silva) is witness to the murder. Ghost Dog spares her life when he sees her reading Rashomon. Besides, the girl wasn't part of the deal.

Louie's boss, Sonny (Cliff Gorman), is not pleased with the outcome, and orders Ghost Dog to be killed. The only problem is that nobody knows where he lives, since he only communicates with Louie through messenger pidgeons. Ghost Dog finds out about his death warrant, and does what the way of the samurai dictates: he confronts the situation headlong.

It's difficult to watch any crime drama these days without comparing it to "The Sopranos", which is much better than almost everything on the big screen. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai can't compare in that arena, but it is still better that most of its feature-length counterparts. Combining the genres of mob film and samurai adventure is a fresh approach that works quite well. The film's more conventional aspects are balanced with a serious cinematic vision from Jarmusch. He can't really come up with new ways of portraying the mobsters, but the sharp perspective of Ghost Dog makes it more compelling.

Besides Whitaker's performance, the title character is supported by an excellent score that sounds like a hip-hop version of Masaru Sato's Yojimbo theme. Ghost Dog's world is one of both serenity and violence, and Jarmusch deftly shows this contrast with quiet, reflective scenes, followed by exciting action pieces.

So far, this film hasn't had very wide distribution, and at this time, it doesn't look like it ever will. Hopefully, more people will discover it on video, and perhaps Jarmusch will finally get the commercial success that has eluded him.

For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)

Here's some merchandise for sale at
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) -- VHS
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) -- DVD
Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai - The Album -- Compact Disc Home
Review Archive
Video Pick of the Week
Guide to Star Ratings

Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan