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January 16, 2009 |

By Miscellaneous | Underappreciated Gems | January 16, 2009 |

You know what I like about these Underappreciated Gems ? How different in tone they are to standard reviews. Don’t get me wrong, both types function as arguments to convince those unfamiliar to see the movies, but with the Gems, you have a bit more room to expound. Plus, there is no real need for forced gimmicks and hyperbole; since there is a better chance the readers have already seen it. In a way, it just feels different, a bit more appreciative for film and such. I really wanted to do one, and requested the chance to write up one of my favorite films, Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai.

Thing is, this movie was my first “artsy” film. It didn’t depend on big names or explosions, it was quiet and moody, and it told a story that moved me. Sure, many a studio film did the same, but not the same way this one did. Plus, it just plain kicked ass.

The plot is a basic (and some argue, flimsy) tale: Ghost Dog (Forrest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland) is an enigma. Existing on the edge of his neighborhood, both well regarded and completely mystifying. His best friend is Raymond, an ice cream man who only speaks French (Issach de Bankole, Casino Royale), which Ghost Dog doesn’t understand, but they are remarkably able to communicate. He lives his life according to Hagakure, the book by Yamamoto Tsunetomo describing the life and code of the samurai. He acts as retainer and hitman to Louie (John Tormey), a member of the last remnants of the Mafia in town. In the vein of such films as The Professional and Le Samourai (which inspired much of the film and the character himself, such as his electronic lockpick), he finds himself being hunted by the gang, and having to defend himself while not breaking his code.

Everything is in a constant state of entropy, hanging on the very edge of existence. The city is broken down and pitted, with barely a soul walking its rust-encrusted streets. A few pockets of color and life exist, but they seem almost alien to the rest of the world. Whitaker succeeds at making Ghost Dog seem like a walking corpse. A man barely reacting to the decay around him, completely detached from life as dictated from his code. He has no fear of death, and ironically, would have killed himself if Louie commanded it, thereby making the entire war against the gang even more pointless.

The cultures of samurai and the Mafia, as represented by Ghost Dog and Louie’s gang, are struggling against not only each other, but their own encroaching irrelevance. But while Ghost Dog honestly fights according to the ideals he holds sacred, the mobsters only want to be considered as the tough guys they are not, and possibly never were. They can barely afford the rent on their hide out, their cars are too big to fit in their garages, and their legitimate businesses are bleeding money. They insist on maintaining a lifestyle that long ago left them behind. This is no more evident than in the dialogue between Louie and the dying Vinnie:

Vinny: You know Louie, there’s one good thing about this Ghost Dog guy. Louie: What’s that Vin? Vinny: He’s sending us out the old way. Like real fucking gangsters.

Even the concept of honor, whether to friends or masters or what have you, is depicted in the middle of a sad, painful death. While Ghost Dog struggles to maintain his respect and deference to Louie, the gangsters readily dispose of their barely-formed ideas of loyalty and honor. Handsome Frank is ordered to die, only for his killer to be declared marked for death for doing the job in front of Louise. But while those old codes are dying from disuse, the film shows how needed they really are.

Books play a major part, from the quotations from Hagakure acting as chapter breaks, to the copy of Rashomon that bonds Ghost Dog to both the precocious Pearline (Camille Winbush, “The Bernie Mac Show”) and to the inadvertent cause of his problems, mob princess Louise Vargo (Tricia Vessey, Nobody Needs To Know). The cartoon clips shown at varying points are prophetic, depicting the eventual deaths of those nearby. They speak to the fatalistic viewpoint of the protagonist, the film, and the code that inspires both. Death comes to all; no one can avoid it, even if they see their fate plain as day. You can either avoid it, blinding yourself to the obvious, or you can accept it, and be able to one last act of defiance.

Of course, I cannot possibly consider reviewing this film without mentioning inarguably the best part of Ghost Dog: the music. In what I can only describe as an instance of genius, RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan was asked (by Jarmusch himself) to produce the film’s score and soundtrack. And boy did he ever deliver. The Ghost Dog soundtrack is often dark, constantly moody, and quite somber, which is why it is perfection for this film. It is no surprise that after this film, RZA was asked to produce other soundtracks, such as Kill Bill, which like Ghost Dog, ends up on a lot of folks’ “feel like a badass” soundtrack lists.

The ending is as expected for a film about a killer with a code. Hardly anyone watching the film would expect anything different, and anyone who did obviously was watching the wrong film. It is tragic, short, and changes nothing while ultimately defining those involved, which pretty much in keeping with the whole movie’s point: everything ends, and the end is what matters.

Here comes the part I hate: the end of the review. I never know how to conclude one of these damn things. Point is Ghost Dog is a movie I loved and, while it has received some acclaim (including the pinnacle of success in my geeky world: a comic and a RPG based on it), I have always thought it still got a raw deal. It definitely deserves at least a second consideration.

So that is it. That is how this ends.

Claude Weaver III, aka Vermillion, is well aware that this is probably going to be one of the more divisive posts on here, and fully expect an iMDb-level flame war to be waged in the comments. And he is okay with that. That is simply how we roll in this bitch, and to attempt to avoid this distasteful aspect is counter the spirit of the place. Besides, he is going to break the 40-comment barrier eventually, you bastards. He can be pestered constantly at his blog, Vermillion’s Brain Receptacle.

Underappreciated Gems

The End is Important in All Things

Ghost Dog: The *whisper* Way of the Samurai *whisper*/ / Claude Weaver III

Underappreciated Gems | January 16, 2009 |

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