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IN SHORT: Deliberately paced urban samurai flick. Magnificent performance by Forest Whitaker.
Cranky walked in to the screening of Ghost Dog with two preconceptions. First: Somewhere in Hollywood there's a guy (sic) in an office who's job it is to think of various genres that have never been combined in a movie script before, which is normally as bad an idea as it sounds. Second: I've never seen star Forest Whitaker give a bad performance.
And I don't know much about the Samurai way of life, for which Jim Jarmusch's film provides more than adequate background. Each major scene is preceded by a quote from the Hagakure an 18th century "manual" (sic) of Samurai thought and behavior. The quotes all have their purpose; they keep this story to a slow and deliberate pace, not unlike the Samurai we see in this story, called Ghost Dog (Whitaker). "Slow" is a deliberate ruse on a Samurai's part. When it is time to battle, he moves like a cyclonic wind -- quick and deadly. A weapon is never drawn unless it is to be used; though we see a sword used for practice, Ghost Dog's preference is an arsenal well equipped with things that go "boom!"
Ghost Dog serves a Master he has seen, prior to the start of this flick, only twice. Made-man Louie (John Tormey) once saved a much younger Dog from street thugs. As an adult Samurai pledged to his service, Ghost Dog communicates through the use of passenger pigeons, cooped near the ramshackle rooftop shed that he lives in. It's a nice touch, as the Master/Samurai relationship is as long extinct in the modern world as is this species of pigeon.
The mobsters we see are middle aged, mostly overweight relics of an older era. Louie has ordered Ghost Dog to kill Handsome Frank (Richard Portnow), but the hit is witnessed by the Mob boss' daughter, Louise (Tricia Vessey). Louise wasn't supposed to be present at the hit. The boss, Vargo (Henry Silva), orders Ghost Dog to be put down, else Louie will take the blame. As for the Samurai, there is one more thing you should know: It is considered the ultimate disgrace to allow one's Master to be killed (Masterless Samurai are called Ronin, and that film of Frank Miller's graphic novel languishes in development hell.) While anyone with half a brain can see the Ultimate Showdown coming a mile away, getting there is a trip.
The bloodshed, when it comes, is fast and furious. Balancing it all is a surprising amount of humor in Jarmusch's script, highlighted by a totally whack performance by rapfan mobster Sonny Valerio (Cliff Gorman).
Is there enough violence to make the teens happy? Doubtful. Is there enough characterization and story for us grownups? tons. Cranky hopes Ghost Dog isn't too slow-moving to break out of the arthouse market. Whitaker's performance is so well worth seeing, it becomes the first name on the list we keep locked away until December comes rolling around.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, he would have paid...
Well above the arthouse average and Recommended. Our West-coast based Paul Fischer offers up his own take on Ghost Dog. Click here for Paul's review. Paul also sat down with Whitaker for a one on one StarTalk, click here.
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