Criterion Prediction #237: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, by Alexander Miller
Title: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Cast: Forest Whitaker, Tricia Vessey, John Tormey, Cliff Gorman, Victor Argo, RZA
Synopsis: A lone assassin known as Ghost Dog (Whitaker) lives a solitary existence as a man of few words who works as an assassin and follows the strict code of the samurai as it’s written in the hagakure. Ghost Dog indebted to a mafia soldier and takes contracts from him exclusively as his retainer, despite taking high-profile hits, Ghost Dog works outside the mafia, however, after a botched hit, he becomes a target.
Critique: This is one of those movies that I had walked by countless times in the video store and movie shops. After a glance at the title, I picked it up and said, “Ghost Dog? Samurai? Come on, give me a break.” Then I felt like an idiot because, after closer examination, I realized this was a Jarmusch movie and that Ghost Dog wasn’t some lame pandering clunker but the real deal. Bear in mind this was the era of Tarantino clones, where lazy, lame-brained, knockoff gangster movies like The Boondock Saints were considered “good.”
Of course, this was a case where I was overjoyed to be wrong. Ghost Dog is one of Jarmusch’s most idiosyncratic and exciting films to date. Jarmusch’s trademark style appealed to audiences with his subtly dramatic deadpan comedies; he remains one of the most consistent American directors taking inspiration from the free-form road movies of Wim Wenders with an eye for distinctly American eccentricities while imbuing a worldly bent, Jarmusch has a voice unlike any other. So the thought of him making a revisionist samurai film in a contemporary setting with a makeover in black culture didn’t sound like a dare, but an assured, inspired decision. Ever the stalwart, Jarmusch renders Ghost Dog with his meditative aesthetic (as seen in Down by Law and Mystery Train), channeling the temperament of Ozu or Bresson. Here, he makes a thematic change, but his tone and style are coming in just as strong, and the genuinely remarkable glimmer throughout the film is the sincerity in which Jarmusch explores the traditions of the hagakure and the disciplined nature of the samurai way. Something he could only achieve with the presence of an immaculate talent such as Forest Whitaker, who is at his stoic best, his honorable loner bit works in the mold of Ken Takakura. He’s a teddy bear but also an assassin; and yet Ghost Dog is bound to his code and wouldn’t harm anyone outside the contracts he’s assigned. Title cards from the Hagakure roll throughout the film and Whitaker’s narration comes with a soulful timbre making it flow like a harmonious dirge. When Jarmusch gets into genre territory he instills his comedic flourishes and applies them in an almost pranksterish way. In lesser hands this contrast would clash, but Jarmusch makes period atmosphere and graphic violence (Dead Man, Ghost Dog) potent and unexpectedly hilarious.
We’d expect to see and hear his framing devices and wry dialogue regardless of whether it’s a road movie, romance or gangster yarn. Still, Ghost Dog weaves a thread of tirelessly witty references throughout that will likely make film buffs giddy and newcomers thirsty for more.
While the stylistic homage is derivative–and you can directly link scenes from Ghost Dog to the works of Samuel Fuller, Seijun Suzuki, Akira Kurosawa, and Jean-Pierre Melville–it’s coming from a place of sincerity and Jarmusch’s playful tendencies make this film one of his best from the 90s.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: While Jarmusch has been a staple director in The Criterion Collection, it took a little while for them to warm to his more adventurous titles that came out after he arrived in the American independent scene, with Dead Man getting the Criterion treatment in 2018. Naturally, the next ascension in this journey is Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, a film that would undoubtedly find its audience with a Criterion release and is one of the titles left over from the Artisan/Lionsgate line that was popular in the late 90s.
Hence, it’s overdue for an upgrade and it can’t be a hard one to track down, rights-wise.