Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Ghost Dog : The Way of the Samurai

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

Ghost Dog – The Way Of The Samurai

7/10

USA 1999, dir. Jim Jarmusch, stars Forest Whitaker

The RZA isn’t an abbreviation for Royal Zoological Association, nor is it short for Radical Zionist Alliance. Pronounced “Rizza” or “Rezza”, it’s the nom-de-disque of Robert Diggs, leader of the Wu-Tang Clan and perhaps the only undisputed genius yet to emerge from the world of hip-hop, if we accept that a vital element of genius is the ability to quantum leap into areas no-one had previously before been aware existed. Overseeing a prolific flow of albums under the Wu Tang banner, the RZA – who has also found time to produce Bjork and, of all people, Texas – has a distinctive, ominous style with frequent use of subtle background loops and samples of dialogue from kung-fu cartoons and movies. There’s always been a cinematic scale to his work, and it’s no surprise to hear he’s working on a feature film, Bobby Digital, which may or may not be released later this year. If it’s anything like as innovative and powerful as his rap output, we are all in for a treat – although advance word that the film is an unscripted riff on Shaft-style blaxploitation movies is somewhat less than encouraging.

In the meantime, however, we will have to make do with Ghost Dog : The Way of the Samurai, directed by Jim Jarmusch and with a soundtrack assembled and produced by the RZA, who also makes a fleeting but memorable appearance towards the end of the film. I must admit I’ve never quite got Jim Jarmusch. In theory, I should be one of his biggest fans, but I suspect I was born ten years too late – maybe if I’d seen Down By Law in the cinemas back in the mid-80s I’d have become a zealous follower of his work. As it is, I have only vague memories of a TV screening of that movie and the only time I actually paid money to see one of his films at the pictures it was Night On Earth, a multi-story, globe-trotting affair that was intermittently interesting but, on the whole, a bit of a self-indulgent mess.

Ghost Dog doesn’t convince me that Jarmusch is any kind of great director – I’d put him somewhere near the top of the second rank, along with Wim Wenders, whose frequent cinematographer Robby Muller Jarmusch uses here. I think my main problem with Jarmusch (and, to a lesser extent, with Wenders) is his over-riding concern with making “cool” movies, which usually end up falling embarrassingly short of being remotely hip. If Ghost Dog does manage to be successful in this regard, then I reckon it’s the RZA who deserves much of the credit – since seeing the film I’ve bought the soundtrack album, and it’s an absolute corker, and although the RZA is solo performer on only one of the tracks, his ‘Samurai Showdown’ is a high water mark in the history of hip hop. It’s therefore far from a damning criticism to say that the most talented and creative person involved with this film isn’t the director but the orchestrator of the soundtrack, and that the soundtrack itself is a more accomplished work of art than the movie itself.

Ghost Dog (Whitaker, solid) lives alone with his flock of pigeons on the roof of a building in an industrial area of an unnamed North American city (it was actually filmed in Jersey City, New Jersey). The pigeons are carrier pigeons, because this is the way Ghost Dog communicates with his employer, sixtysomething Mafia hood Louie (John Tormey). Ghost Dog follows the Samurai code as laid down in the ancient Hagakure text, and, to this end, carries out the occupation closest to the spirit of the samurai – he’s a professional assassin. But when one of his jobs for Louie goes wrong – in ways which aren’t made fully clear or convincing – Ghost Dog himself becomes the target for the Mob’s hitmen.

So far, so ludicrous. But although much of Ghost Dog‘s content is straight-faced and solemn, it can never be accused of taking itself too seriously: “The passenger pigeon has been extinct since 1915!” splutters an octagenarian Mafioso when informed of Ghost Dog’s communication methods. The film is full of droll little scenes and witty touches of the unexpected – I especially liked Whitaker’s park-bench confrontation with an actual dog – yet another in the long line of great cinematic Staffordshire Bull Terriers – and a later scene in which Ghost Dog observes an elderly oriental gentleman walking down an alley, weighed down with shopping. A young homeboy creeps up on the pensioner and Ghost Dog – and the audience – expect some kind of a mugging to take place, with our hero leaping to the rescue. Not a bit of it, as the codger dispatches the youth on his own with an impromptu display of sprightly martial arts.

It’s at moments like these – and there are plenty of them over the 115-minute running time – that Ghost Dog really impresses with its originality and boldness. Jarmusch dramatises a clash of historic codes – Mafioso vs Samurai, in a world which has largely left such considerations far behind – and it isn’t that much of a problem that he never delves very deeply into any of the issues he brings up. His mode is determinedly pre-adult, a precocious 14-year-old’s idea of cool, all poses and attitudes. As in Wenders’ work, Women are fascinating but remote (there’s barely a whiff of sex in the movie, and Ghost Dog himself seems to have zero urges in this department), children are noble, wise innocents, seductive images blend with evocative sounds, and the results are intoxicating. It may take some doing, but suspend your disbelief and your cynicism and you may find yourself thoroughly engaged, transported into a vivid, self-contained cinematic world. Which is how we get back to that soundtrack LP.

by Neil Young