Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
*** GM
Starring: Forest Whitaker, Cliff Gorman, John Tormey, Frank Minucci, Richard Portnow, Victor Argo


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This feels like the kinda movie I'm going to have to watch a few more times before I truly get the gist of it. Although that's something to be expected of a Jim Jarmusch film. The only previous film of his I'd seen is "Dead Man," which is a very slow-paced and very moving bit of filmmaking, but also one that has to sink in a bit, your mind wrapping around it as slowly as the film is paced.

"Ghost Dog" has the same sort of slow, easy-going yet intense pace, making excellent use of slow fades in and out. It's the story of a contract killer adhering to the code of the ancient samurai, in service to a low-rent mob guy that saved his life once. Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) lives a solitary existence - befriending only an ice-cream vendor that speaks only French and a smart little girl that enjoys the reading. He communicates with his employer only through carrier pigeon, meditates on life and death as instructed in the Hagakure and other Eastern philosophy books, and adheres to the laws of retainer and master even though his master, Louie (John Tormey), doesn't really have a clue what his deal is. When one of his contracts goes wrong through no fault of his own, the half-ass gangsters that hired him through Louie are forced to try to bring him down to save face with other gangsters.

There's not a whole lot of suspense here - the people trying to kill him are generally incompetent not-all-that-goodfellas, and Ghost Dog is a modern-day samurai warrior. There's never really much doubt as to who's going to do most of the killing. This is more a film of mood, with long, drawn-out driving and walking sequences, subdued conversation and quiet strength in the characters. It seems to be about the value of honorable traditions, the respect of things and ways of the past (the good parts of them, that is, or at least the interesting parts), and how hard it is to stay true to such traditions in the complex, often ridiculous, often nonsensical world of today. The value of keeping one's own perspective in the face of all the conflicting viewpoints, yet not denying or decrying other views as wrongheaded and wicked - it's a lost notion these days.

I also feel the need to note that Cliff Gorman as Sonny, the old-school gangland type that also really enjoys Flavor Flav, is particularly amusing to me. More old-time gangsters should enjoy hip-hop.

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