After having traveled all around the world (through movies) for the past several posts (even jumping around time), we’re bringing it back to the near-present (though retaining the foreign, artsy elements so you all don’t get confused) with Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai.
This film is kind of fascinating. It’s a film that blends so many different cultures, genres, themes, and visual leitmotifs together under one banner that one would think it wouldn’t be able to support it all, that it would simply collapse under its own weight. I’m happy to say it doesn’t do that, that it all flows together quite well. The film is about a modern-day samurai named Ghost Dog (played by Forest Whitaker) who occasionally performs hits for the local mob. However, when a hit doesn’t go quite as planned, the mob decides to eliminate him and he decides to fight back. That’s the plot. It’s been done. That’s not the reason to watch this film.
It was directed by Jim Jarmusch, a filmmaker well-known in the independent scene that started up in the 80’s and continued into the 90’s, known for such films as Dead Man with Johnny Depp, Stranger Than Paradise, and more recently Broken Flowers with Bill Murray. This is the first Jarmusch film I have seen and already I can tell three things about him: he likes visual motifs that parallel things that are happening in the plot, the themes he’s bringing across seem to be more important to him than the plot and he likes to reference other films. A lot. (Later in the post, I’ll list as many references made as I can).
What I most liked about this film was how it brought across its themes. There was never anytime that I thought it was beating me over the head saying, “DO YOU GET IT?!” However, because the themes that Jarmusch wants to bring across are plainly more important to him than the story, the themes are very clearly expressed. For example, one of the primary themes of the movie is the meeting and melding of different cultures and people. Ghost Dog, an African-American who follows the Japanese code of the samurai, considers an Italian-American gangster to be his master; one of the gangsters has an affinity for hip-hop music; Ghost Dog shares a friendship with a Haitian ice cream seller who only speaks French and they are able to communicate in a way where neither speaks the others’ language, and yet both are able to perfectly understand what the other is saying (a Han-Chewie relationship, so to speak). It’s very hard to make a movie that’s very thematically-driven and not have the themes bash themselves repeatedly over the audience’s head. Jarmusch walks a very fine line, and he walks it well.
I realize that before this moment, I’ve been primarily talking about how thematic and important this movie is and sounding rather pretentious about it. Let me make this perfectly clear: this movie is bad-ass! It’s Forest Whitaker as a modern, urban samurai taking on the mob by himself! It’s one-half action movie, and the other half an intellectual meditation on the clashing of cultures in America. Does that not sound awesome or what?! So, keep that in mind when you’re considering this film.
There are a few things that I didn’t care for in this film. Mainly, it was the gangsters. These are the most cartoony, over-the-top, stereotyped gangsters you’ve ever seen (with the exception of Louie, Ghost Dog’s “master” who is a more rounded character that is torn between his allegiance to the mob and his allegiance to the guy whose life he once saved and who now does reliable work for him). It feels like Jarmusch’s direction to those actors was “just do your best ‘Joe Pesci as a gangster’ impression.” Therefore, you get a lot of mobsters waving their arms, saying “Aw you f___in’ kiddin’ me?!” and doing a lot of gangster-y things. It’s unbelievable and comes across as unintentionally funny. Although, it is possible that Jarmusch was being completely intentional in the way these gangsters are portrayed. I did think during the movie that Jarmusch was trying to make a link with how cartoony the gangsters were being and with the fact that the gangsters all watched cartoons. I had a bit of an epiphany moment when I made that connection and I immediately thought, “Oh! Jarmusch is showing that these gangsters get their sense of identity from the cartoons they watch! That is genius!” I’m not sure if that’s actually what Jarmusch is trying to do, or if I’m reading way too much into it, but whatever.
Overall, this is a really fun little film that entertains as an action film, and wrinkles your brain as an intellectual meditation. It definitely makes me want to check out more of Jarmusch’s filmography as he seems to be a really fascinating filmmaker who puts out a lot of unique material. I recommend you check him and Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai out as well!
Final Rating: 8/10
And as promised, here is a list of a great deal of references made in this film that I was able to catch (with help from the IMDb trivia page:
– The story of the movie is a reference to classic French film Le Samourai, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, about an urban assassin-for-hire who follows the code of the samurai.
– Ghost Dog raises pigeons on the roof of a building, like Marlon Brando’s character in On the Waterfront.
– At one point in the film, Ghost Dog introduces himself as Bob Solo, an amalgamation of two Harrison Ford roles from George Lucas movies (Bob Falfa from American Grafitti, and Han Solo from Star Wars).
– Gary Farmer, a Native American actor, essentially reprises his role from an earlier Jarmusch film Dead Man, where in both movies, he says the same line: Stupid, f__in’ white man!” Yes, Jarmusch references his own film.
– Ghost Dog shooting one of the gangsters through a drain pipe is a reference to Branded to Kill, an avant-garde Japanese crime film. Jarmusch draws heavy influence from Branded to Kill throughout the film, including a scene where a bird blocks Ghost Dog’s sniper scope. The same thing happens to a character in Branded to Kill with a butterfly.
– All the cartoons in the film parallel what’s happening in the real world of the movie.
– Ghost Dog visits a pet store called Birdland, referencing the name of a famous jazz club in New York, named after saxophonist Charlie Parker (who was nicknamed “Bird”), who Forest Whitaker played in the biopic Bird. (That’s a reference in a reference in a reference).
Okay, that’s a sizeable amount of references that should give you an idea of how many Easter Eggs there are to find in this film. Up next is… I don’t really know. I’m so backlogged on reviews that I don’t know what I’m going to review next. Guess we’ll both find out soon!