Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)

An utterly unique genre hybrid combining samurai, mafia, and hip-hop cinema to brilliant effect

The Very Best

8.8

Movie

France, Germany
English
Crime, Drama
1999
JIM JARMUSCH
Alfred Nittoli, Angel Caban, Camille Winbush
116 min

TLDR

Quite possibly the coolest movie ever made.

What it's about

A lonely, samurai-obsessed hitman (Forest Whitaker) runs foul of the local mafia after a botched kill.

The take

Director Jim Jarmusch audaciously combined the DNA of French noir classics with that of samurai and mafia movies to produce this utterly original film. As advised by the ancient Japanese manual it often quotes, though, Jarmusch’s movie also “makes the best” out of its own generation by adding hip-hop into its wry genre blend. The results are more than the sum of their parts, especially because the film is so eccentric: no matter how au fait with its inspirations you are, you still won’t see “Forest Whitaker plays a lonely hitman who wields and whooshes his silencer pistol like a samurai sword, lovingly tends pigeons, and can’t even speak the same language as his best friend” coming.

Ghost Dog’s strangeness is never jarring, though, thanks to Whitaker’s cool, collected performance, an atmospheric score by Wu-Tang Clan's RZA, and the cinematography’s tendency to use smooth double exposures for scene transitions. It almost feels like we’re in another world: Jarmusch zooms in on the Bushido code obsessions of Whitaker’s single-minded character and the mafiosos’ dying laws, blurring out everything else so the movie becomes a meditation on the impulse to moralize one’s misdoings by subscribing to rigid definitions of “honor.” Not an exercise in surface style, then, but a bone-deep reflective masterpiece.

What stands out

There’s really no overselling just how unpredictable Ghost Dog is, from its initial premise right down to the details — like the moment in a mafia meeting when an aging gangster interrupts proceedings to spit Flavor Flav bars, or when we glimpse a character watching TV cartoons (Betty Boop, Felix the Cat, or even The Simpsons’ Itchy & Scratchy Show) just before we see the same exaggerated violence that’s depicted in the animation play out in real life. These eccentric touches are all played very straight, giving the film a wry deadpan air on top of all its other charms.

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