Clash of two codes of honour and loyalty in “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai”

Jim Jarmusch, “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” (1999)

Even after twenty years, this film still holds up well as an unusual and odd pastiche of, and homage to, the gangster and martial arts / samurai film genres. A remake might infuse more energy and a faster pace but possibly at the expense of the existential melancholy that pervades the original film. Played to unassuming perfection by Forest Whitaker, the eponymous Ghost Dog is a hitman working for Mafia bottom-feeder Louie (John Tormey): years ago, Louie saved Ghost Dog’s life and Ghost Dog, of his own apparent volition, pledges thereafter to serve Louie according to the code of samurai. Louie and Ghost Dog rarely see each other but instead communicate via carrier pigeons, as Ghost Dog spends his free time caring for pigeons. Louise gives Ghost Dog the job of killing gangster Handsome Frank who is sleeping with Louise Vargo, the daughter of Louie’s Mafia boss. Ghost Dog carries out his task but is seen by Louise. Boss Vargo and his associate Sonny Valerio decide afterwards that they must get rid of Handsome Frank’s killer and tell Louie as much.

After finding out from Louie that Ghost Dog keeps pigeons, Vargo’s henchmen go around tracing and destroying all the pigeon coops in the city. Once Ghost Dog discovers that all his pigeons have been killed, he realises that he must kill Vargo and his men or they will kill him and Louie as well. In the evenings, Ghost Dog traces Vargo and the mobsters’ whereabouts; during daylight hours, he goes to the local city park to visit his only friends, a French-speaking ice-cream vendor called Raymond (Isaach de Bankolé) and a bookish young girl Pearline (Camille Winbush) who reads Ghost Dog’s copy of “Rashomon” among other books he lends her. While Raymond only speaks French and Ghost Dog likewise can only speak English, the two men communicate and understand each other well by repeating one another’s speech in his own language.

The film’s melancholy quality comes from Ghost Dog’s understanding that by deciding to kill Vargo to save himself and Louie, he will still die anyway as Louie will be bound by the gangster code to avenge his boss’s death. Thus, the code of the samurai and the Mafia code conflict with each other, and the only resolution to this clash will be Ghost Dog’s own death. To this end, Ghost Dog prepares to die by giving all his precious assets to both Raymond (money) and Pearline (the Hagakure, the samurai bible). Whitaker imbues Ghost Dog with a deep, unspoken sadness borne perhaps out the knowledge that one day the bushido code may not be enough to justify his life as a hitman, alienating him from mainstream society and allowing him to associate only with those equally marginalised by society (Third World immigrants and refugees, lonely children and ageing Mafia mobsters). It is most ironic that the belief system which gives Ghost Dog a reason to live, and which maintains his sanity, ends up sending him to his death when it intersects with another, more dubious and grubby ideology.

A constant theme throughout the film is the inevitability of change and individuals’ reactions to change. Ghost Dog accepts change and his possible early death with equanimity, while Louie and the other mobsters express their fear of it in different ways (by watching children’s cartoons constantly, for example, or aping the hip-hop lifestyle in spite of their racism towards black people). Together with the chilly music soundtrack curated by RZA (Wu-Tang Clan), the film catches a snapshot of American urban society in flux, changing from one world into another.

Whitaker gives an outstanding performance as the unlikely hitman in a film with an unusual existential conundrum. Beyond that, the film is entertaining if not great in its unassuming way. The world in which Ghost Dog lives is insular and cut off from mainstream society – even the ageing mobsters live dreary lives committing humdrum if still vicious crimes – and this insular quality gives the film an enervated feel that viewers may find unexciting.