Sometime in the late ‘90s, director Jim Jarmusch, drunk on the success of his 1995 western “Dead Man,” swaggers into Artisan Entertainment (now Lionsgate) and pitches his new movie.
“It will star Forest Whitaker as an inner-city Mafia hit man who follows the laws of bushido, the ancient samurai code of ethics. Also, it will have a soundtrack made by RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan.”
“Umm… okay,” the film exec responds, unsure about whether he feels more confused about the pitch or how Jarmusch got in.
With that, the contract has been sealed, and Jim Jarmusch disappears in a puff of smoke to wherever Jim Jarmusch comes from and begins his work.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai,” was born. (Warning: not to be taken as fact.)
As Jarmusch so eloquently put it, “Ghost Dog” stars Forest Whitaker as the titular Ghost Dog, a Bushido-spouting inner-city man, who views himself as the retainer of a Mafiosi who saved his life when he was younger.
In “Ghost Dog,” Jarmusch pays homage to “Le Samouraï,” a 1967 French-Italian crime drama film (and an easy recommendation) that is strikingly similar to “Ghost Dog.” The Japanese quotes appearing on screen, the strict codes of ethics that each assassin follows: the similarities are numerous.
Even their modus operandi is similar: Ghost Dog has a “movie-magical” device that allows him to hijack any car, whereas the protagonist in “Le Samouraï” has a key ring that lets him start any Citroën DS.
The decision to have RZA make the soundtrack was definitely a great one. The word here is “chill.” The mellow beats of the golden age of hip-hop are definitely present, with RZA giving us a taste of his special “samurai hip-hop,” a concept he would not fully deliver on until he produced the soundtrack for the anime series “Afro Samurai” in 2007.
At first, I was very skeptical when it came to the casting of Whitaker. When I think cool urban samurai, I do not think of the guy who starred in “The Butler,” and especially not the guy who played the alien in “Battlefield Earth.”
But what can I say? It works.
Whitaker (all 6’2’’ and 220 pounds of him) plays a sort-of gigantic teddy bear. A teddy bear that kills with extreme skill and efficiency, but a teddy bear nonetheless. It does feel a little weird to see him spouting Japanese proverbs, but I guess that contributes to the film’s overall atmosphere.
That is not to say that Ghost Dog isn’t insane, because he is. He’s obviously insane in a hermetic, lives-on-top-of-a-building-in-a-shack-with-carrier-pigeons kind of way, but also in a sweet way.
He’s the kind of man who buys a kid an ice cream cone from the local truck (owned by his only friend, a non English-speaking Haitian) and then gives her Japanese literature to meditate on.
Unfortunately, he is also the kind of person who swears fealty to a Mafia man who cares as little for Ghost Dog as he does anybody else.
However, Whitaker conveys the part with such wisdom, grace and honor that it’s more like a master foolishly forsaking a useful tool than it is a naive man doing something stupid.
Thus, “Ghost Dog” is much more quiet and pensive than would be expected of a movie about Mafia samurai. What’s more is that it accomplishes this thoughtfulness without getting mired in pretension, contributing to an effortlessly cool vibe that pervades every blood soaked, Bushido bookended scene.
(Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is available for streaming on Netflix)