The hit man movie is a well-worn genre with well-worn archetypes “ especially the ruthless yet strangely principled assassin who lives by his own code, which usually leads to trouble sooner or later. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai offers an intriguing spin on this. Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) is the loner assassin, but the code he lives by, as you may have guessed by now, is the Hagakure, the Way of the Samurai.
Since being rescued from thugs by Louie, a mid-level Mafioso some years ago, Ghost Dog has worked as Louie’s retainer, doing a series of perfect hits for him, and in the meantime living in his rooftop shack with his pigeons, meditating on the inevitability of death, honing his skills and occasionally hanging out with his best friend Raymond, an ice cream salesman who only speaks French.
Problems begin when Ghost Dog is contracted to take out Handsome Frank, a man who has made the mistake of sleeping with the big boss’s daughter. Ghost Dog completes the hit, but the woman is in the room when it takes place. The boss, Mr Vargo, decides this is unacceptable, and orders Ghost Dog be killed. But he isn’t about to go out quietly.
Ghost Dog is a quirky movie that ambles along to its own rhythm. Its pace is much slower than that of the average action film and there are long periods of calm punctuated with staccato bursts of violence. Director Jim Jarmusch (Night on Earth, Broken Flowers, Mystery Train) is known for his off-the-wall characters and refusal to stay near the middle of the road. In Ghost Dog he succeeds in keeping the quirky to a level that doesn’t feel self-conscious and forced. Sure, the film would lose around half an hour’s run time if he’d cut out the shots of pigeons flying and Ghost Dog driving the streets at night. But it wouldn’t be the same without them, plus you’d hear much less of RZA’s soundtrack which is perfectly matched to the film.
The relationship between Ghost Dog and Louie is nicely played and through the quirkiness, the film strikes a note of melancholy. Both are throwbacks to a gone age “ Louie’s mob are middle-aged, overweight men, their organisation’s power waning, as out of touch with the modern world as Ghost Dog’s samurai code. As Louie ruefully mumbles throughout “ Nothing makes sense no more. Ghost Dog meanwhile is by turns an honourable samurai loyal to his master, and a brutal fool, who has committed his life to a pointless cause. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai has neither the pacing nor the simplistic morality of the standard hit man film, and is far more interesting and ambiguous for it.