(director/writer: Jim Jarmusch; cinematographer: Robby Muller; editor: Jay Rabinowitz; cast: Forest Whitaker (Ghost Dog), John Tormey (Louie), Camille Winbush (Pearline), Cliff Gorman (Sonny Valerio), Frank Minucci (Big Angie), Isaach Bankole (Raymond, Haitian Ice Cream Man), Victor Argo (Vinny), Damon Whitaker (Young Ghost Dog), Henry Silva (The Big Boss, Vargo), Tricia Vessey (Louise Vargo), Gene Ruffini (Old Consigliere), Richard Portnow (Handsome Frank), Gary Farmer (Indian); Runtime: 116; Artisan Entertainment; 1999-France/USA)
“It just might be one of those intriguing films that requires an acquired taste and once acquired, leaves no doubt about how good it is.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Ghost Dog is the seventh feature film of arguably America’s most innovative and most underrated director, Jim Jarmusch. I consider it a shame that one of America’s best directors had to get European backers for this film and still receives a better reception abroad than he does in his own country. He has created an almost masterpiece about the influence an ancient way of life has for a black man wrestling with his present cultural environment by meditating every day on the meaning of death, by considering himself a dead man. He has become a hit man so he could honor the samurai code by respecting solely a small time middle-aged Italian Mafia soldier, Louie (John Tormey), who saved his life eight years ago when two white ruffians were going to kill him. The Ghost Dog is a huge black man (Forest Whitaker) prone to wearing a hooded sweatshirt who lives in the inner city streets of Jersey City, on a rooftop shack, where he maintains a carrier pigeon coop and spends his time alone in silence like a monk, studying an 18th century book Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai by Yamamoto Tsunetomo. The excerpts from the text appear periodically on the screen, to be read out loud by him to explain the scene that is to follow according to the way an ancient warrior steeped in Buddhist lore might see it.

Ghost Dog gets his assignments only via carrier pigeon from Louie and follows the exact orders issued. Here, he is asked to hit a made gangster called Handsome Frank (Richard Portnow) who has been fooling around with the crime boss’s mentally disturbed daughter, Louise Vargo (Tricia Vessey). When Ghost Dog goes to the job he plays rap music on the car CD to keep alert and when there he quietly enters the apartment expecting to see only the intended victim, as the girlfriend he was told would be put on a bus. But the crime boss’s daughter has returned and lounges on a chair, having just finished reading a translation of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s Rashomon and then tossing it on the floor. She is dressed in a red negligee and has a Betty Boop hair-do. Handsome Frank is watching a Betty Boop cartoon on TV, as Ghost Dog takes aim and fires away. After the killing, Louise indifferently asks, “If he was sent by her father,” as Ghost Dog reacts silently to her presence. She then says in a low voice, “You can have it. I’m finished with it.” He quickly takes the book and withdraws.

The Mafia chieftains, all geriatrics, meet in the back of a Chinese take-out restaurant, which they use as their clubhouse. They are so unsuccessful in what they do, that they have trouble making the rent payments for this dump. They sit around a table and tell the slobbish-looking Louie and his underling Vinny (Victor Argo) that they are disturbed with the hit because the girl was present. A secondary boss, who distinguishes himself as a lover of rap music, Sonny (Cliff Gorman), then orders Louie to murder Ghost Dog telling him that Handsome Frank was one of us. When Louie flinches, he says it is better than if we murder you. The crime boss (Henry Silva) looks as if he could be brain dead as he impassively asks who the hit man was in a particularly monotone voice. When they find out that Louie doesn’t know his real name or where he lives, that he pays him for the hits once a year on the first day of the autumn and that the only contact is by carrier pigeon; and, on top of that, he’s a black man, there is a sigh of disappointment. This becomes too much for the fragile elderly consigliere (Gene Ruffini) to hear as he utters his first words on the screen in a machine-like unnatural voice, by making vulgar remarks about the hit man’s race; the meeting breaks up with a plan to get Ghost Dog. There is comedy here in the absurdity of the situation even though no one cracks a joke. It doesn’t make sense that these Mafia bosses want to kill their contract killer, especially since it was an untraceable hit. But one of the points of the story is that things don’t necessarily make sense, they just happen.

The most innocent encounter Ghost Dog has occurs on a park bench where a young black schoolgirl, Pearline (Camille Winbush), strikes up a conversation as she recognizes him as an odd character who lives in the neighborhood. They get around to talking about books, as she takes out her bookbag and shows him she is reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Both agree the book is better than the movie. Reading books is readily accepted by both parties as something that is cool. Ghost Dog lays Rashomon on her saying he just finished reading it and only asks that when she finishes, she should let him know what she thinks of it. When the girl says to him that everyone says he has no friends he takes her to meet his friend the black Haitian ice cream vendor (Isaach de Bankole), who speaks only in French a language Ghost Dog doesn’t speak; but, even though they can’t understand the other’s language, he explains to her that they are still best friends and they are still able to communicate with each other. The assumption is that they both have soul and can talk the black man’s rap. The girl and the Haitian show their true human feelings toward the samurai warrior and seem to understand something about him that is vital without being able to comprehend him.

Ghost Dog prepares for all-out warfare from the mob, with the idea Louie must be protected at all times because of the samurai code. He sends the big boss a bewildering quotation from the Hagakure via pigeon about beheading and the boss is the only one of the aging Mafia present in the room to respond by saying, “It’s poetry—the poetry of war.”

The most artificial scene comes after Ghost Dog finishes picking off the mobsters in their country hideaway. Ghost Dog is driving home when he spots on a country road a pair of redneck camouflaged hunters with darkened faces (reminding him of those white actors in vaudeville who used to put on a blackface). They have just shot a black bear for no reason except to kill it. It seems odd that Ghost Dog after his wholesale butchery can take the high moral ground and think that he has the right to take the law into his own hands against these wayward hunters and execute them, even if he equates them with racists. From his discussions with his Haitian friend, he has a shared belief that bears in ancient civilizations were considered equal to humans and therefore what the hunters did was tantamount to a crime.

The film is much influenced by Jean-Pierre Melville’s stylized 1967 gangster masterpiece Le Samurai which also quotes from an ancient Japanese ideology that influenced its hero, though in Melville’s film the Book of Bushido is a fictional work. Ghost Dog remains for the most part a parody of other movie characters. The film is influenced by the gangster film genres, plus the Japanese, black, and Italian cultures, the present pop culture, the African-American who had to reinvent himself in the American cities and how an unheralded Italian-American mobster and an unheralded black samurai of “different ancient tribes” can act with mutual respect for each other despite their differences.

The film is slow-paced due to the stoppage needed to read from the excerpts from the Hagakure texts by Whitaker. Its rhythm is further broken up by attempts to link pop culture, rap music, cartoons, and the ugliness of the city streets with the lessons that can be passed on from a different time that must be reinvented to fit every new generation. The movie uses the hip-hop music of RZA (pronounced RIZZ-ah) that fits coolly into the nighttime moods of the depressed city and gives the monk-like samurai who listens to the music on the radio’s CD, a strange trance-like look of recognition that he is hip to what is going down around him. It is a movie that is mostly invigorated by Forest Whitaker’s stunning performance as someone who lives by myth alone, whose most memorable statement is: “The end is important in all things.”

The most glaring error Ghost Dog makes, is in his strictly literal interpretation of what he is supposed to do as a samurai warrior. He in error takes the message from the book to mean that he must become subservient to someone who doesn’t respect what he believes in. Buddhism specifically states that no killing is justified, so he seems to have taken the wrong course of action in this lifetime despite his belief that he got everything together by reading the book. Ghost Dog would have saved himself a lot of trouble by putting his energy into helping his new-found Mafia friend in other ways than by reinforcing his already bad karma. That would have been the true way of a samurai warrior. It seems he’s someone living so cut off from human contact and without the benefit of a living samurai teacher, that he has no one to help him when he errs.

Jarmusch has in all his films displayed an interest of seeing how another culture looks at the American culture, having already shown how Hungarians, Native Americans, and Japanese react to seeing America. It now seems to be the turn of the black man; this film is basically about the Forest Whitaker character making peace with who he is and showing that to be an American, it takes more than one culture to influence you. We have seen the Mafia men absorbed by cartoons or rap music or poetry, or the director himself influenced to be a so-called “hip” White Negro. For Jarmusch, America is an exotic place where different cultures uniquely flourish in the most unexpected spots.

The film’s shining points come from the moving cinematography of Robby Muller, the minimalist mise-en-scène, the underlying humor, and the freshness of Jarmusch’s approach to filmmaking, proving that he is someone willing to take chances. There are critics who constantly rave about less cutting-edge films more than they do about ones that are not afraid to mess with set concepts. For this film, they offer mostly faint and lefthanded praises. I’ll take my chances with heaping praise on a Jarmusch edgy film that is slightly flawed, over so many other forgettable praiseworthy hits that are so limited in scope.

Jarmusch’s first language is poetry and it is my belief that this film is as close to a lyrical masterpiece as a film can be without necessarily being one. Its weakest point being a lack of character development for the Mafia figures. The Mafia characters were more cartoonish than real, they seemed to be created to fit a certain standard mold rather than to be developed out of their own personalities. But that flaw was also what drove the film comically, therefore making that weakness more palatable and understandable.

This film is similar in mood to Jarmusch’s other ambitious work, which was a masterpiece, “Dead Man.” It is one that makes many fine points to justify its wide range of themes. It is foolish to try and tightly categorize it except to say that even though it is not exactly a mainstream film, neither is it primarily an art-house film. It just might be one of those intriguing films that requires an acquired taste and once acquired, leaves no doubt about how good it is.