Guys in the hood called him Ghost Dog.
We don’t get any other name for this film’s protagonist.
He’s a hit man with a sense of honor, working for a crime family that doesn’t have one anymore. He lives in a shack on a roof next to a pigeon coop. His best friend is a Haitian who sells ice cream in the park and only speaks French, a language Ghost Dog doesn’t understand.
Forest Whitaker has created a unique underworld character in this quirky, interesting and sometimes baffling film written and directed by Jim Jarmusch.
Jarmusch (Mystery Train, Night on Earth) is regarded by many film fans as an acquired taste. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai does nothing to dispel that perception.
Absurdist. Existential. Surreal.
Any and all fit the bill in trying to describe what goes on here. Remember Clint Eastwood, the loner without a name, in those spaghetti westerns? There’s some of that. And a little bit of Star Wars. And a slice of On the Waterfront. And a hint of Léon: The Professional.
In explaining his approach to filmmaking, Jarmusch once said, “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. . . . Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. . . . Always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said, ‘It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.’ “
Where Jarmusch takes us to is a bleak, unidentified city that is home to a mob family that has lost its way. Honor and loyalty have been replaced by greed and treachery. There is no leadership, just arrogant incompetence. And it’s all second-rate.
This is a mob family that falls behind on the rent for its clubhouse and gets hassled by the landlord. Try that in GoodFellas and the landlord is history. Here, he’s placated.
Whitaker’s Ghost Dog is the outsider, partly because he’s black, but primarily because he believes in the ancient ways—ways that predate even the storied history of the Sicilian Mafia.
We know this because he is constantly quoting from Hagakure, the Japanese classic book of Samurai commentary on life and death. His voice-overs, accompanied by written words superimposed on the screen, are a more somber version of Henry Hill’s running commentary in GoodFellas. They’re also much more philosophical.
Ghost Dog is a true believer. Nothing else matters. How he got to this point in his life is one of the many unexplained—and maybe unexplainable—aspects of a story that, like the main character, is constantly on the move, but never seems to arrive at a destination.
He owes a debt to Louie (John Tormey), a local wiseguy who saved his life during a street fight. This pivotal event is seen in flashbacks. But as in the Japanese classic Rashomon (one of several books in our hit man’s extensive library), that confrontation is seen differently through the eyes of its various participants. Ghost Dog, as he is being beaten on the ground, sees Louie pull out a gun and blow away one of his attackers. Louie, in recalling the event, sees the attacker turn on him with a gun. He then pulls out his own weapon and shoots the man in self-defense.
In order to repay the debt, Ghost Dog becomes Louie’s retainer—his hit man. He goes about his business quietly and efficiently, but circumstances beyond his control create a situation that puts him at odds with Louie’s crime family, a bedraggled mob ruled by an aging trio of misfits.
For reasons that don’t appear logical, they decide Ghost Dog has to be eliminated.
Ray Vargo (Henry Silva) is the sulking mob boss whose wacko daughter is dating Handsome Frank (Richard Portnow), a mobster Ghost Dog was assigned to rub out. Sonny Valerio (Cliff Gorman) is a rap-spouting mob lieutenant who inexplicably walks with a limp. Gene Ruffini completes the crime family hierarchy as a decrepit, hard-of-hearing consigliere.
The gangsters, by and large, are one-dimensional characters. Several, including the boss and Handsome Frank, spend their time watching cartoons on television.
Ghost Dog, on the other hand, is an erudite shack-dweller who reads Rashomon in his spare time. He practices with a sword on the roof next to his birds. Did we mention that he only communicates with Louie via carrier pigeon and that he takes pay for his hits once a year, on the first day of autumn?
Old school traditionalist? Perhaps.
But he makes great use of an electronic gizmo that allows him to override locks on car doors, ignitions and the gates to wealthy residences. He’s also got an arsenal of weapons hidden in his shack and knows how to use them.
The body count is high here, but the murders are carried out with a fluid economy that is the mark of a professional. Ghost Dog quickly gets the upper hand in his battle with the mob—fueled in part by his anger over the destruction of his pigeon coop and the bloody annihilation of the flock. (Brando’s Terry Malloy was there before Ghost Dog, but lacked the firepower to do much about it.)
The final showdown in the park—with his Haitian friend and a young girl with whom he has shared books looking on—pits Ghost Dog against Louie. Given what’s gone on beforehand, Louie shouldn’t stand a chance. But as Ghost Dog moves toward Louie, he offers one last piece of ancient warrior philosophy: “A Samurai must always be loyal to his boss.”
HIT: While satirical, the depiction of the dysfunctional mob family is a fairly accurate reflection of what’s happened to the so-called men of honor over the last couple decades in America. The bottom line is that second- and third-generation Italian-Americans don’t make good gangsters. The best and the brightest are now doctors, lawyers, educators and Supreme Court Justices. The guys in the mob? They come from the bottom of the gene pool.
MISS: Two different strangers, an American Indian and a black man, show up on the roof outside Ghost Dog’s shack during the movie. Mob hit men confront them each time, killing the black man. Who are these guys and what are they doing there? We have no idea.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “[Jarmusch] has composed a ruminative, bittersweet visual essay on brutality, honor and tribalism, which may frustrate audiences expecting hyped-up intensity, fast-paced thrills or a story that makes sense. . . . It is drenched in blood and saturated with ambiguity.”—A.O. Scott, New York Times
GOOF: The hit that takes out Sonny is impossible. Don’t believe us? Take a look under your sink. That pipe shaped like an S is called a trap. It’s standard. Unless Ghost Dog has one of those magic bullets that took out JFK, there’s no way the hit goes down—or up, as it turns out—in the way it’s portrayed.
PIVOTAL SCENE: Ghost Dog saves Louie’s life by shooting a hit man sent to kill them both. Then he shoots Louie in the shoulder to give him cover with the mob. “Nothing makes sense anymore,” Louie says.
BEST LINE: After his cohort Vinny shoots and kills a female cop, Louie is aghast. “You just iced a woman,” he says. Vinny’s got no problem with that. “You’re a male, chauvinist pig,” he tells Louie. “They wanna be equal. I made her equal.”
“I KNOW THAT GUY”: Handsome Frank (Richard Portnow), who exits very early in the movie, played Hal “Mel” Melvoin, the lawyer who consistently managed to keep his client Uncle Junior out of jail during the long-running, Emmy award-winning Sopranos series on HBO.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: The soundtrack was composed by Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA. The rapper has a cameo as the camouflaged stranger Ghost Dog encounters on his way into the park toward the end of the film.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: Once more just to track some of the weird ramblings, but unless you’re a big Forest Whitaker or Jim Jarmusch fan, that ought to be enough.
BODY COUNT: Seventeen, not counting the consigliere who collapses with a heart attack before Ghost Dog can take him out.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”