It helps to understand that the hero of "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" is crazy. Well, of course he is. He lives in a shack on a rooftop with his pigeons. He dresses like a homeless man. The whole story is so strange, indeed, that I've read some of the other reviews in disbelief. Are movie critics so hammered by absurd plots that they can't see how truly, profoundly weird "Ghost Dog" is? The reviews treat it matter of factly: Yeah, here's this hit man, he lives like a samurai, he gets his instructions by pigeon, blah . . . blah . . . and then they start talking about the performances and how the director, Jim Jarmusch, is paying homage to Kurosawa and "High Noon." But the man is insane!
Understanding this seemingly self evident fact is the key to understanding Ghost Dog. Paradoxically this becomes tougher the more of Jim Jarmusch’s films you have seen. Usually seeing a body of a filmmaker’s work clues you into their method, but indeed in Ghost Dog it just obscures it. After all, all of Jarmusch’s characters tend to live in their own pocket universe. Their actions, dress and manner dictated by inscrutable personal style that might as well be Byzantine codes of honor. So Forrest Whittaker plays a hitman who lives by the code of the samurai, how is that any odder than Johnny Depp’s Cowboy/Accountant/Possible Reincarnation of William Blake in Dead Man? Or Winnoa Ryder’s precocious grease monkey in Night On Earth? Or Tom Waits in day to day life?
Yet there is no getting around the fact that Ghost Dog is out of step with his would be siblings. If for no other reason than the film is so aware that the world is refusing to play long with his persona. Ghost Dog as a whole is a good deal less arch than the average Jarmusch work (Though there certainly is an element of that, mostly from the trio of gangster chieftans who end up hunting him. You have not lived until you’ve heard Henry Silva impersonate an Elk’s death rattle). He’s been accused of making all of his films with one eyebrow arched. But here it drops down at least a little bit. Once again the best way to figure out what Ghost Dog is is to compare it to what it’s not. Jarmusch would make another film about a taciturn, inscrutable Black hitman The Limits Of Control, a film that was perhaps doomed by its title. Compare it also to the other irreverent genre deconstruction, his weird western Dead Man. Perhaps the closest of Jarmusch’s films in tone to Ghost Dog, but still much more aloof.
Indeed the genre deconstruction is perhaps best viewed as another feint. Not that it isn’t a valid take on its genre, just that most people choose to view it through the prism of the wrong genre. The film was released in 1999, at the height of the HK film boom and the heroic bloodshed genre. A hitman meant Chow Yun Fat with two pistols gripped in his fists and two more on his feet just in case. But Jarmusch was harkening back to an earlier era (and different country) of genre filmmaking. Pulling cues from the surrealist gangster films of Seijun Suzuki, rather than the then current trends in Asian cinema.
Thanks to its inimitable concept, powerful performance by Whittaker, cult of personality from Jarmusch, and hypnotic awesome score by The RZA Ghost Dog was always guaranteed a place in cult film history. But despite all the praise that gets thrown its way, I have the sneaking suspicion it is still underrated. Go back to it, watch it with fresh eyes. It’ll be there, like its hero, quietly confounding all who approach it.