Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
A greatly absorbing film matched by the coolness of Forest Whitaker.
It’s difficult to say what film most people will know as Jim Jarmusch work, a lot will have heard of the large list of characters involved in Coffee and Cigarettes involving a great dynamic cast, some of who won’t be known for their acting. Perhaps the 1995 film Dead Man starring Johnny Depp as a man who finds himself on the run in 19th century America and meets the native simply named ‘Nobody’. If not these films then maybe the 2005 release of Broken Flowers starring Bill Murray as a man searching for the woman of his past and his apparent son. It was actually this dry, slow paced film that marked Jarmusch’s first film under the eyes of a studio and probably explains why it might be more recognized than the other independent based films, which are actually better viewings. However one thing we do pick up from viewing most of his work is a dry pitched humor usually matched with a slow paced drama and he also enjoys casting musicians Tom Waits, Iggy Pop and Jack White to name a few.
A man who goes by the name of Ghost Dog (Forrest Whitaker) models himself as an ancient samurai having been saved by his now considered master he carries out hits for him. Living alone on a rooftop where he keeps his trusted pigeons for his only means of communication, his latest job is seen by mafia bosses daughter and now they want him dead. With his only two friends a french ice cream seller and a little girl who shares his love for books, he must fight against the mafia.
What struck me most about this film was the balance between the slick, coolness of Forrest Whitaker’s Ghost Dog and subsequently the action sequences he is involved in mixed with his strong philosophies of the ways of the samurai that are mentioned through narrative and text throughout. At no point did it feel too heavy on one side of these two important themes as a viewer I felt engaged in the wonderfully crafted action scenes and equally so in the passages read by Forrest Whitaker.
Though this dry humor I mentioned as being a staple of Jarmusch’s work is less present here, in what is more heavy in action, there is still an underlying presence of it sprinkled through the characters and dialogue. For instance take the rather unusual group of aging mob men, even their leader gives off the feeling of incompetence. Trying to discover the true identity and whereabouts of Ghost Dog they take out any man that even slightly resembles him. Then when they receive messages via his pigeon they flay around trying to catch the bird which all adds to this low level of comedy that in my view does well not to make its self too prominent.
Perhaps I should of mentioned in that first paragraph (I could edit this to the start, but where is the fun in that?) of how Jarmusch utilizes the minimal connections between characters to tell a story and ultimately create a strong connection between them. By simply viewing Coffee and Cigarettes you can understand what I mean, its this connection between each character that is either minimal or left unclear to the viewer that is then allowed to develop into something much bigger. If you are still confused then watch Coffee and Cigarettes this should show you what I mean and besides its a great watch.
Let’s talk about these characters and their actors then shall we? Alright. Logically and indeed firstly we shall start with Ghost Dog played by Forrest Whitaker who I usually enjoy when watching his films. Most people’s favorite performance from Whitaker is no doubt his role as the scarily powerful dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland and I have to agree with this popular opinion. As Ghost Dog Whitaker manages to bring a coolness and laid-back character that can only really be compared to the work of his fellow actor in The Great Debaters Mr Denzel Washington. It’s this relaxed demeanor playing alongside his skills as a hit man and his beliefs of the samurai that create a slow but perfectly comfortable paced film. As for the men that make up the mob boss they all give the film what is needed from the likes of Victor Argo and John Tormey to name just few of them and rather than this quick approach we might expect they too are less in a hurry, which as mentioned all adds to the mood of the film. Then there is of course the french Ice Cream vendor Raymond played by the often unfairly overlooked Isaach De Bankole. Raymond only speaks french and Ghost Dog cannot speak a word of french, meaning both fail to understand each other. However they meet frequently and this is where that comedy element works best for although they cannot understand each other, through subtitles we learn how in fact they very much do and in doing so often speak the same lines only in different languages.
The balances between the action and drama elements are leveled really well, add this dry and importantly hidden comedy element and this makes for a very enjoyable film. Sure some people might not like this slower paced approached and would rather a film was clear on whether it is a comedy or a full on action, fair enough but you will miss out with that kind of mind set.