Every now and then, I will hit by the memory of a movie and it will act like a punch to my gut. I will be flooded with the feelings I got when I first watched said movie. It will be more than a memory, but a physical reaction. That is what happened this week when the Forest Whitaker gem, Ghost Dog came back to me. The first thing I wondered was why I had never spoken of this movie before.
I think it is safe for me to call Ghost Dog a hood-centric samurai story, whose themes work on many levels, even in a setting that would be completely foreign to the concept. This is a hit man movie steeped in old world mysticism. This is a movie about honor and betrayal. This is the samurai story told in a way you have never seen. This is Ghost Dog.
As much as it may seem like it, no. This is not a pic of Mike Tyson.
I will start this off by talking about the director of Ghost Dog. Jim Jarmusch. He is a director who chooses to tell different stories than most. Quite brave behind the lens, he has made such memorable films as Coffee and Cigarettes (the man who brings together Wu-Tang and Bill Murray will forever be a God to me), Broken Flowers, and Dead Man with Johnny Depp. There is a quiet confidence in his storytelling. In many ways, he the anti-Michael Bay. A man more intent on telling stories than trying to woo audiences with loud and shiny set pieces. His most recent, Only Lovers Left Alive, with Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as aging vampires, has me (understandably) excited. But I would know little about the man had I not fallen in love with his work on Ghost Dog.
So the story of Ghost Dog is as classic as the themes the movie presents, with real injections of originality and flavor throughout. Hit man is seen making a hit, and therefore, he becomes the target of a hit by his boss. The old ‘hitman becomes new intended victim’ story. Yes, you may have seen that formula a thousand times before, but not as deftly executed as it is here. There is an East meets West flair here that makes Ghost Dog uniquely its own experience. The perfect score and amazing performances help drive that experience home.
No idea what this pic is doing, but it felt like a good fit.
Forest Whitaker plays Ghost Dog. A hitman who is very much focused on the ways of the samurai. Hagakure, to be exact. He does what he does, but he believes in following the samurai code, first and foremost. Oh, and did I mention that he lives alone with carrier pigeons, and his only real friend is an ice cream man who speaks only French? Yes, in case the name and themes didn’t tell you already, this is a bizarre little film. It dances between the absurd and the dark without warning, and you will often find yourself betwixt those two places as a viewer, quite often while watching Ghost Dog. It can be funny in one second, and jarringly violent in the next. But that is the draw of this ride. You may think you know what you are sitting down for, but you really don’t.
At this point, I will do something I don’t often do in these columns (but should do more often) and talk about the score of the film. RZA from Wu-Tang (who director Jarmusch worked with before, as mentioned) scored Ghost Dog, and the end result is like a Triforce of power coming together. It all fits and works perfectly. This, for me, was the first time I had experienced RZA doing his East meets West soundtrack vibe (which he has come to be known for, scoring many films, and eventually making his own, The Man with the Iron Fists) and you can see how this all falls together so perfectly fore the first time here. Music is such an important touch in films, and when done right, pushes the feelings and the story so much more. It is a shame it has taken me this long to point that out.
Yes, the name Ghost Dog will make sense at some point during the film, I promise.
So you may be wondering now ” Rem, what story is there here? Seems a little light.” That is where you would be wrong.
Ghost Dog is an absolutely engrossing character. Just trying to stay true to old world samurai values while being knee deep modern day crime adds such an interesting element to the idea of a story you think you have heard before. Even the casting in the movie works really well, with Whitaker’s Ghost Dog going up against a bunch of old, white gangsters. It is like they were making a statement about the new world gangster flicks (gangsta) versus the old world (Italian gangsters) and how only the fittest can survive.
Just the scenes with the Haitian ice cream man make this film worth seeing. Add to that scenes with with Ghost Dog discussing books with a small child, or Sonny, the Italian gangster who likes hip hop (which, by the way, they wrote into the movie when they found out the actor playing him really did love hip hop), there are so many little things about this film you will remember, I had no choice but to ask, why haven’t you seen it?
He has a small but interesting circle of friends.
What you need to understand here, at the heart of the movie, is a man who is trying to stay true to a belief system that the world has all but made obsolete, and how even his faith in it is wavers when he doesn’t know if it has a place anymore. These are timeless themes that can be adapted to anyone’s situation in life. Ghost Dog is so much more than a revenge movie. So much more than a gangster movie. So much more than a Samurai movie. It is all those things, and manages to balance them in a way that you would think would not work, yet somehow reaches nirvana.
This is the movie The Last Samurai should have been. This is the movie Only God Forgives should have been. Wait, I take that back. Ghost Dog is in a league, all by itself. Check it out, and you’ll see what I mean. And if you get a moment, please go toss a “like” up over here. It is how I validate myself.
When you don’t like Remy’s page, it makes Ghost Dog sad.