Film Commentary [4-5-00]
A Dying Code - - Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai
Genre: drama/action/comedy/philosophical
Grade = A-


This film tells of the betrayal of Ghost Dog, an overweight urban black assassin (Forest Whitaker - The Crying Game, Phenomenon) in a hip-hop gangsta rap world who, strangely enough, follows the code of the Japanese samurai.

Ghost Dog studies the eighteenth century Japanese Bushido Code from the book, Hagakure: The Way of the Samurai, and the story is told as a sequence of philosophical passages from the ancient text. Following the Code of Bushido, he has pledged his loyalty to a single master, a low level mafioso named Louie (John Tormey - Kiss Me Guido, Jungle 2 Jungle), who saved Ghost Dog's life when he was a teenager.

We further learn how Ghost Dog lives his life. Praying at a Buddhist alter, practicing kendo, tending his pigeons. His best friend is a jovial, French speaking Haitian ice cream vendor, Raymond (Isaach de Bankole) who doesn't understand a word of English, and Ghost Dog doesn't speak any French. Nonetheless, they have a mutual understanding of one another that lets them communicate. His only other friend is a young girl with whom he exchanges books.

Ghost Dog communicates with Louie only through carrier pigeons from whence Louie dispatches him for assassinations. As the story opens, Ghost Dog is given the assignment to assassinate Handsome Frank (Richard Portnow) who is dating the Don Ray Vargoís (Henry Silva) mentally troubled daughter Louise (Tricia Vessey). Ghost Dog moves through the city with ease of a silent breeze, leaving no impression or mark of his passage. Dispatching his target, he is confronted by the Donís daughter and lets her live. The assassination infuriates Vargo, who demands the assassin be executed. Ghost Dog must now confront the notorious crime family, or be assassinated himself.

Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch (Mystery Train, Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law and Night on Earth), the characters in this film are an anachronistic and dying breed - warriors of an old code that is now being forgotten. The mafiosos are old, wheezing and decrepit. They are three months behind on the rent for their hangout and all their houses are up for sale. The story is exceptionally well written with interspersions of Jarmuschís deadpan and wry humor and extraordinary character development. The film's score is a compilation of hip-hop, rap and reggae music that attempts to underscore Ghost Dog's surrounding modern urban environment.

When I first saw the trailer for this film several months ago, I, and everyone else in the theater, snickered at the scenes of the overweight Whitaker swinging around a katana. However, when these scenes are taken into context with the film as a whole, you understand the character and the significance of Whitakerís great performance. The performances of the mafiosos were on dead-on tract portraying the dying organization, wheezing hysterically as they are forced to climb several flights of stairs to try to get to Ghost Dogís rooftop abode. This is not the mob of The Sopranos. Its ending is interesting, bringing the little girl as the next generation to follow the Bushido Code, while Louise now takes her place as the new Don.

However, this is not a film without error. Ghost Dog is deliberately paced with a succession of scenes that must be taken into context with the film as a whole. However, the film is too slow at certain points and may have benefitted from some additional editing. There are too many long shots of Whitaker walking with his briefcase, driving and looking like he's about to fall asleep.

However, the question is whether or not I truly understood this film. Throughout the movie the characters are shown watching extremely old cartoons on television. What is this supposed to mean? That the characters themselves are cartoon caricatures? These kind of things usually bug the hell out of me until I find out. If I had paid more attention in English literature class, maybe I would be able to more fully appreciate good film.

Interesting to note that the Hagakure was written during the Tokugawa period, when Japan was unified and peaceful under the power of a single shogun. With little need for the warrior skills of the samurai, they began a state of decline. Hagakure was written as an attempt by the samurai to make sense of their lot in life, as it was becoming increasingly meaningless.

I highly recommend this film. Like Being John Malkovich, it is truly an original.


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