Live by the code. Die by the code.
Indie auteur Jim Jarmusch has written and directed a stylishly thematic study of anachronism and honor in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, a slowly paced but intriguing film. It is a collage of gangster, gangsta, and samurai film genres, all told with an aloof, almost sublime style. To call the main characters strange would be an understatement, and in some part this could be considered a study in insanity, but I found the film refreshingly new and interesting. If you are looking for a fast paced action thriller, look elsewhere (despite the main storyline), but if you have some patience you might just consider this a great film. Artisan has provided an anamorphic transfer, a good soundtrack, but few extras for this lesser known gem.
Facts of the Case
Ghost Dog (played by Forest Whitaker-Phenomenon, Light It Up) is a strange young man trapped in a mindset that is 200 years out of date. He religiously follows a lifestyle based on the book "Hagakure: The Way of the Samurai," an early 18th century treatise for warriors. He has given his fealty and devotion to Louis (John Tormey), a mid-level Mafia goon who saved his life years ago, and has worked for him as a hit man for several years. Ghost Dog lives in a shack on a rooftop with pigeons for company, and a carrier pigeon acts as his conduit to contact his employer. He is a poignant, tragic figure, whose best friend is a Haitian ice cream vendor who speaks no English, and Ghost Dog speaks no French, and they just play chess and talk past each other. His other newfound friend is Pearline, a young girl who loves to read.
When Ghost Dog fulfills a contract in a manner that does not please the Louis' aging crime bosses they order him killed, and of course Ghost Dog now hunts them before they can kill him. In a matter-of-fact style, great violence is done, but little action. From this point you are to see how the way of the samurai influences Ghost Dog and the way he puts the lessons to use.
What this story does not try to give in thrilling action it more than makes up for with striking imagery and allegorical references. One of the most affective imagery is the use of titles citing passages from "Hagakure" and then seeing how Ghost Dog implements the advice in the passage for the modern day environment. But the gritty New York underbelly makes for striking imagery that work well with the gangsta base that Ghost Dog hails from, and the shifts to the more typical Mafioso hangouts provide a striking contrast.
Anachronism, or being out of place and time with your surroundings, is a prevalent theme. The aging mobsters are almost cartoonish and intentionally caricaturist, and depict how these gangsters are just as out of place as Ghost Dog, who is still living in the 18th century in many ways. I loved the quirks they did give these mobsters, however, especially the rap-loving one who tries to rap the lyrics of Public Enemy to his cohorts.
Forest Whitaker is simply superb as Ghost Dog, with the ability to be lovable and tragic at the same time; evincing emotion with a mere glance. His clumsy, bear-like gait changes to fluid grace as he moves through a martial arts sequence or wields his silenced pistols like samurai swords. Underplayed but present is the undercurrent that you know that Ghost Dog is insane, or at least deeply troubled. That he considers this mobster his master and he his retainer is almost ludicrous. Louis has no idea of the depth of this relationship, or even that Ghost Dog considers himself a samurai. To him the man is just an eccentric hit man, though extremely capable. But it all makes sense to Ghost Dog, and in some strange way it will make sense to you as well.
Jarmusch has intricately and artfully woven this collage between a very stereotypical gangster flick, the dirty streets of an urban gang picture, and the Japanese samurai film. Borrowing heavily from influences such as the French Le Samurai and Kurosawa, he imparts much of that style into areas it has never been used. The minimalist beat from Wu-Tang founder RZA (pronounced RIZZ-AH) carries most of the action, interspersed with original rap and hip-hop tunes. Still, the pacing is much more restrained, which makes its own point about violence. This point, in part, is that death and violence are not always the result of furious action, and can come at any time. An interesting subplot on this theme is the gangster and his daughter who constantly watch cartoons, which all show graphically violent scenes done in a manner to make children laugh.
A special mention for newcomer Camille Winbush, who provides the "new" in this tale of old and new. She is refreshing in her scenes, and provides the continuation of the tale as Ghost Dog gives her "Hagakure" to read. I look forward to seeing this young actress in the future. She is not the only element of "new" in this dichotomy, however. Ghost Dog himself combines hi-tech weapons and gadgets to do his job, and considers them modern equivalents of the swords and other tools recommended in the book.
I could probably devote more paragraphs to the various symbols and allegories present within the film, but I'll leave it here and just recommend the film. The film reached me on several levels. Humor and pathos, thrills and cerebral moments, with style and substance, Ghost Dog works. I think the film gets even better on subsequent viewings, and you may think better of it hours after you've seen it. It's the type of film that grows on you.
While I am pleased with the disc, there is one troubling concern. Some have said that the original aspect ratio for the film, which I did not see theatrically, was 2.35:1. The disc is definitely 1.85:1 anamorphic, and the question is therefore raised whether this was squeezed for a straight 16 x 9 display. More news on that front when we can get an answer from Artisan on that question. While the framing is a bit squeezed, I'm not sure that it is cropped or if the framing is intentional. At any rate, the picture quality is quite good, with deep blacks, good shadow detail, and a pristine film print. Some grain is noticeable in some brightly lit outdoor scenes, but is neither prevalent nor distracting. Detail level is sharp and colors, though muted in many of the gritty scenes, are accurate. Assuming for the moment this is the original aspect ratio I give the picture quality high marks.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is very well done also, with a spacious front soundfield that does reach around to the surrounds, though there often is little besides the musical score and ambient sound to come from the rear. Dialogue is firmly centered, and always audible and clearly understood. There is an isolated musical score as well, though much of that score is the minimalist beat I spoke of.
I certainly can't say that Artisan skimped on the extras, though I was disappointed in the lack of a detailed commentary track. Instead there is a 30 minute interview feature "The Odyssey: The Journey Into the Life of a Samurai" with Forest Whitaker, RZA, and director Jim Jarmusch. They give a fair amount of detail into how the picture got made and went from concept to production. Instead of the typical "making of" footage, it is almost completely interviews with each artist sitting next to each other informally. Three outtakes come next, without commentary. A page of production notes inside the case, three trailers and three TV spots, a music video for RZA and "Cakes," and cast and crew bios and filmographies round out the extras.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This film won't be for everybody. When you read a story about a hit man rubbing out a mob family it sounds like an action picture, and there is precious little action here. The pace is far slower than an action picture as well, working more with characters and atmosphere than with moving the story along.
One man's style is another man's pretentiousness as well. Some may think the stylized way in which the film is made be thought too ambitious or show arrogance from the director. I don't agree with that, but I think that some people could make that case.
There is one real flaw with the story. When the mob decides that Ghost Dog must be killed, their reasoning is greatly flawed, and it is hard to maintain believability. I couldn't see that they would really have him killed, considering the great skill and service he had provided before that point, for the meager reason they gave.
As I stated, I don't know if the original aspect ratio was changed. That would be a big mark against it if true, but I don't have any facts, only questions in this regard. My only real complaint about the disc, aside from the standard one concerning the lack of subtitles on Artisan discs, is the lack of a commentary track. I picked up on so many themes, symbols, and allegories from this film that I would have greatly enjoyed hearing the director elaborate on them. The interview footage is pretty superficial in this regard, sticking mainly to the broad strokes of the film and getting it made.
For any thoughtful film lover, this is worth a rental at least. I'd go that far in my recommendation for just about anyone. I'd heartily recommend a purchase for fans of Jarmusch and Forest Whitaker, but I do still have a question about the aspect ratio. I've never heard of Artisan using a different aspect ratio for an anamorphic transfer before, so I won't make a judgment on that for now. In any case, see the film and judge for yourself.
The jury is still out on Artisan, except for the usual fine for the lack of subtitles. The makers and cast of Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai are absolutely acquitted for an interesting and refreshing look at mixing genres, and not falling prey to the many traps that await those who make the attempt.
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