“Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” is the sort of movie that you enjoy watching, except for one nagging question that keeps gnawing at the back of your mind: What’s the point?
When acclaimed independent-film director Jim Jarmusch is writer and director, one expects coherence — that is, you’re never confused as to what’s going on — but darned if you’re going to get much explanation as to WHY it’s all happening.
It’s certainly a well-made film, well-acted, well-written and full of oddly funny moments. Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) is a hitman-for-hire in an unnamed modern-day city. (Cars’ license plates just say “The Industrial State.”) He also studies, with great seriousness, “Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai,” and endeavors to be a 21st-century samurai, abiding by the same precepts as his 18th-century Japanese counterparts.
“The way of the samurai is found in death,” he says in one of many quotes from the text. “Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily.”
Ever since a mobster named Louie (John Tormey) saved him from being beaten by a gang several years ago, Ghost Dog has been loyal to him, serving his “master” in any way he can. This usually involves killing people — specifically, in this case, one Handsome Frank (Richard Portnow), who has been having an affair with fellow mobster Ray Vargo’s (Henry Silva) daughter. Vargo gives the order; Louie gives the assignment to Ghost Dog (they only communicate via carrier pigeon); Frank is rubbed out.
Unfortunately, Louise Vargo (Tricia Vessey), the mistress, is present for the killing, and now Vargo wants Ghost Dog killed, too, for allowing himself to be witnessed. Louie is hesitant to kill his best employee; besides, he doesn’t even know how to get a hold of the guy. Ghost Dog soon realizes he must defend himself against Vargo and all his men — and perhaps against Louie, his master, too, since Louie knows if he doesn’t take care of Ghost Dog, his fellow mobsters will take care of him.
Many parallels are drawn between the way of the samurai and the code of “ethics” used by the Mafia: loyalty, honor, and what-not. What we’re supposed to get from that is beyond me, but darned if it’s not an entertaining film to watch.
There is great humor with Vargo’s associate Sonny Valerio (Cliff Gorman), a rap-lover (he especially likes Flavor Flav), in a bathroom lip-synching routine. Little touches of comedy sneak in here and there elsewhere, too.
In all, it’s an unusual film. Not weird or pretentious; just unusual. The soundtrack is completely rap and hip-hop; the scenery is gritty urban Mafia; the philosphy is ancient Japanese. Sometimes you score points just for doing something different.
B (; )