Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
is a 1999 samurai action film
written and directed by Jim Jarmusch
. The film was shot mostly in Jersey City, NJ, but the movie never mentions where the story is set. License plates reveal it is in "The Industrial State. Forest Whitaker
stars as the title character, the mysterious "Ghost Dog", an African American hitman
in the employ of the Mafia
, and who follows the ancient code of the samurai
as outlined in the book of Yamamoto Tsunetomo
's recorded sayings, Hagakure
Ghost Dog (Whitaker
) sees himself as a retainer
of Louie (John Tormey
), a local mobster, who saved Ghost Dog's life years ago. Louie tells Ghost Dog to kill a gangster who is sleeping with the daughter of the mafia boss Vargo (Henry Silva
). However, Ghost Dog kills the man in the girl's presence. The mobsters decide to get rid of Ghost Dog to cover up their involvement. Louie knows practically nothing about Ghost Dog, and the hitman communicates only by homing pigeon
. The mobsters start by tracing all the pigeon coops in town. They find Ghost Dog's cabin atop a building and kill his pigeons. Ghost Dog realizes he must kill the entire mafia or otherwise they will kill him and his master.
During the day, Ghost Dog frequently visits the park to see his best friend, a Haitian ice cream salesman named Raymond (Isaach De Bankolé) who speaks only French. Ghost Dog doesn't understand French and Raymond doesn't understand English, but the two seem to understand each other. One of the recurring events in the film is a running gag when Ghost Dog and Raymond talk: one of them says something and the other, having not understood a word, rephrases it in his own language.
Ghost Dog also makes friends with a little girl named Pearline (Camille Winbush) to whom he lends a book, Rashomon and Other Stories, he received from Vargo's daughter. Paralleling a major theme of Rashomon, Louie and Ghost Dog have different accounts of the circumstances of their meeting: in Louie's flashback, we see him shoot Ghost Dog's attacker in self-defense, while in Ghost Dog's flashback, Louie shoots the attacker just as the attacker is about to kill Ghost Dog.
Eventually Ghost Dog attacks Vargo's mansion single-handedly and kills almost everyone he encounters, sparing only Louie and Vargo's daughter. Though Louie feels some loyalty to Ghost Dog, he also feels that he must avenge the murder of boss Vargo. Louie finally confronts Ghost Dog at Raymond's ice cream stand with Raymond and Pearline watching. Ghost Dog is unwilling to attack his master and allows Louie to kill him. His last act is to give Louie the copy of Rashomon and encourage him to read it.
It is revealed that Vargo's daughter now leads the mafia and that she commanded Louie to kill Ghost Dog, completing the chain of events. In the dénouement, Pearline is shown reading Ghost Dog's prized copy of the Hagakure, and the movie closes with a voiceover of her reading a passage, implying that she might grow up to follow the Bushidō code.
The concept of gaining knowledge and understanding from literature is a minor theme throughout the film, foremost including the many quotes from the Hagakure
, which divide the narrative into chapters. A row of books is seen in Ghost Dog's lodgings towards the beginning of the film. Discernible titles include Akhunaton
by Daniel Blair Stewart, The Mayan Factor: Path Beyond Technology
by Jose Arguelles
, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
by Dee Brown
and Geronimo: His Own Story
, S.M. Barrett and Frederick Turner
Ghost Dog and Pearline initially bond over their interest in literature; she shows him several books that she is reading, including Frankenstein, The Souls of Black Folk and Wind in the Willows. He gives her a copy of Rashomon.
Critical response to the film was largely positive. On the Rotten Tomatoes
review site, the film received an 81% "Certified Fresh" rating. The critical consensus was that the movie is "An innovative blend of samurai and gangster lifestyles. The film was nominated for a few awards but did not win any of them. Among the nominations were the César Award
for Best Foreign Film on 2000 and the Palme d'Or
award on 1999. The film grossed a worldwide total of $9,380,473. To that, $3,308,029 of which was in the United States.
- Gary Farmer is credited as playing a character named "Nobody", the same name of his character in Jarmusch's 1995 western, Dead Man. After he is confronted by some mob hitmen on his roof, Nobody repeats one of his lines from Dead Man: "Stupid fucking white man!"
- Forest Whitaker's younger brother Damon Whitaker plays the role of "Young Ghost Dog" in the flashback sequences.
The film's score and soundtrack is the first produced by the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA.
US and Japanese versions of the soundtrack album have been released, each with a different set of tracks. The Japanese release also has some songs not in the film. Songs in the film that don't appear on either soundtrack album include From Then Till Now performed by Killah Priest, Armagideon Time performed by Willi Williams, Nuba One performed by Andrew Cyrille and Jimmy Lyons and Cold Lampin With Flavor performed by Flavor Flav.
- The film has been interpreted by critics as an homage to Le Samouraï, a 1967 crime-drama by Jean-Pierre Melville starring Alain Delon. That movie opens with a quote from an invented Book of Bushido and features a meditative, loner hero, Jef Costello. In the same manner that Ghost Dog has an electronic "key" to break into luxury cars, Costello has a huge ring of keys that enable him to steal any Citroën DS. The endings share a key similarity. Moreover, the peculiar relationship between the heroes of both movies and birds, companions and danger advisers, is another common point.
- The story of Ghost Dog is also similar to that of the heroic bloodshed film The Killer (itself also a homage to Le Samourai).
- The film contains a number of references to Seijun Suzuki's Branded to Kill, such as when a bird lands in front of Ghost Dog's rifle scope, referencing the incident with a butterfly in Suzuki's film. Ghost Dog shooting Sonny Valerio up the drain pipe is taken directly from Branded to Kill.
- The movie was adapted into a role-playing game by Canadian game publisher Guardians of Order. The game focused on two person (one player and one Game Master) group play and resource information about the movie and the real-life Mafia.
- Ghost Dog drives past a club called the 'Liquid Sword'; this is a reference to the GZA album, "Liquid Swords".
- Ghost Dog buys pigeon food in a store called 'Birdland'. Birdland is a famous jazzclub named after Charlie Parker, nicknamed Bird. Forest Whitaker played Parker in the 1988 film Bird.