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An unusual mix of samurai and gangster genres, Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai is a 1999 movie by independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, starring Forrest Whitaker.
The story follows a hitman in the employ of the mafia, who strictly adheres to a samurai code derived from The Hagakure (a collection of quotations and musings from a famous samurai), snippets from which pop up during the movie.
The titular Ghost Dog sees himself as a retainer (in the servant sense) of a local mobster, who had saved his life years ago. As a result, a couple of times every year Ghost Dog performs totally untraceable assassinations on behalf of the mobster. But during the latest hit things get complicated, and the plot moves forward from there.
It's quirky to say the least: Ghost Dog's habits and friend(s) are rather unusual, and the random happenings of Ghost Dog's life are interspersed with or interrupt the greater plot often. (This makes the film a character study of the protagonist as much as anything else).
The movie was a hit with fans of The Wu Tang Clan since Jarmusch, ordinarily a (white) B&W indie filmmaker, got the RZA to compose the soundtrack. (Years later he also did the Kill Bill soundtrack and the theme tune for both Afro Samurai intalments.)
Its independent nature prevented it from receiving much attention, but it did receive fairly good praise from critics and has become a rather minor Cult Classic.
- Animal Motifs: a dog appears twice in the film, both times staring directly at Ghost Dog. Ghost Dog is explicitly compared to a bear by Raymond, and kills two hunters who he encounters who have killed a black bear basically because they could; Pearline at the very end has pyjamas on with a bear pattern. There's also Ghost Dog's pigeons.
- Apologetic Attacker: A mobster sent to kill Louie apologizes beforehand, but gets interrupted by Ghost Dog. Later, Ghost Dog apologizes for shooting Louie.
- Avenging the Villain: After nearly all of the Vargo crime family is wiped out, Louise Vargo takes control and has Louie kill Ghost Dog to avenge her father.
- A Samurai 400 Years Too Late
- Badass Bookworm: Ghost Dog apparently quite loves to read
- Badass Longcoat: Ghost Dog
- Bilingual Bonus: Any dialogue between Ghost Dog and Raymond.
- Bittersweet Ending
- Blood From the Mouth: Mauve Shirt Vinny has this just before he dies of his wounds.
- Book Ends
- Born in the Wrong Century: Just about every gangster and Ghost Dog himself wishes they could live the "old school ways".
- Brick Joke: The Italian mobster who professes his love for Public Enemy in a seeming throwaway joke... but near the end of the movie is actually seen alone in his house blasting PE and rapping along.
- Cameo / Actor Allusion: Gary Farmer briefly reprises his role as a pissed-off Native American mystic who lives on a rooftop and is briefly mistaken for Ghost Dog. "Stupid fucking white man!"
- Contract on the Hitman
- Cultured Badass: Lets see: Ghost Dog is deeply knowledgeable about and dedicated to the code of Bushido, has a love of everything from classic literature to social rights philosophy to fantasy, he has warrior symbols from multiple cultures in his shack, and raises and trains pigeons.
- The Don: Ray Vargo, although he seems to care about nothing except his daughter anymore, so the Family is falling apart.
- Double Standard: Hard to tell if it's being deconstructed or played for very dark laughs. Louie is horrified by a fellow mobster (who seems like bumbling, helpless nice guy) killing an Obstructive Bureaucrat female police officer. The following conversation occurs.
Louie: Jesus, Vinny. You just iced a woman, you know that?
- Dysfunction Junction: The relationship between Ray Vargo and his daughter Louise. He's bankrupting The Family for the sake of her trust fund. She's rebellious. He has her sleazy lover assassinated, (despite said lover being a Made Man within his crime family) then puts out a Contract on the Hitman because Louise was there and traumatized by it. They don't speak a word to each other in the scenes they share. When Ray dies at Ghost Dog's hands, Louise avenges him. There's probably another movie's worth of material just in telling the whole story between them.
- Epigraph: The Hagakure is recited by the title character and, in the final scene, by Pearline.
- Face Death with Dignity: Ray Vargo. Also Ghost Dog.
- Friend to All Living Things: Oh, so, played straight. Ghost Dog has a remarkable way with carrier pigeons. A sparrow even lands on Ghost Dog's sniper rifle and he pauses to admire it before scoping out the mafia hideout.
- Gonna Fly Now Montage: Ghost Dog's dreamy martial arts meditation/power-up sequence on the rooftop.
- Go Out with a Smile: Ghost Dog.
- Guns Akimbo: Ghost Dog calmly takes down the entire Mafia hideout in a subversion of John Woo style.
- Heroic Bloodshed
- Heroic Sacrifice: Subversion, Ghost Dog appears to be under the impression that his death at the hand of his master is necessary to resolve the situation.
- Heterosexual Life Partners: Ghost Dog and Raymond, even though they don't speak the same language.
- Hitman with a Heart
- Hit Me Dammit
- Homeless Pigeon Person
- Hypocritical Humor: The Italian mobsters' conversation goes off on an incredibly racist tangent about how black guys and Indians continually name themselves after animals... and at the end of the conversation one of them yells for an underling named Sammy the Snake.
- Improbable Aiming Skills
You shot me in the exact same fucking place as last time!
- I Owe You My Life: played straight.
- Loners Are Freaks
- Make It Look Like a Struggle: Ghost Dog does this to Louie twice so that Louie's survival after encountering Ghost Dog won't look suspicious. The first time, Sonny Valerio is still suspicious, regardless. The second time, well... there's hardly anyone left to be suspicious by then.
- Mauve Shirt: Louie's friend Vinny hangs around in the background, has a few lines, and seems like a nice guy. He dies seconds after proving himself to be Not So Harmless.
- Mugging the Monster: While passing by an alley, Ghost Dog sees a young man following and about to attack an old Asian man who is carrying groceries. Ghost Dog seems to be considering intervening when the Asian man calmly puts down his groceries, surprises the would-be mugger by kicking him twice in the face, then picks up his groceries and continues on as the mugger leaves.
- Notable Original Music: the soundtrack composed by RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan.
- Old School Chivalry: As said by Ghost Dog before cowboy duel with Louie,
...we're from different ancient tribes. And now, we're both almost extinct. Sometimes... you gotta stick with the ancient ways. The old-school ways.
- Also, Vinny mentioned that "One good thing about this Ghost Dog guy... he's taking us out in the old way. Like real fucking gangsters."
- Only a Flesh Wound: What's a bullet or two in the shoulder?
- Passing the Torch: Ghost Dog bequeaths his copy of the Hagakure to Pearline. She also picks up his gun and aims it at Louie as he runs away, signaling that she might follow in his footsteps.
- Perspective Flip
- Pop-Cultured Badass: The mafioso rap fan.
- The Public Domain Channel: Cartoons. So many cartoons.
- Rashomon Plot: The scene where Ghost Dog's life is spared is seen differently.
- The book itself turns up in the movie.
- Rebellious Mafia Princess: Louise Vargo has a rather weird, slightly gothy, slightly Broken Bird rebellious streak going on.
- Running Gag
- Ghost Dog only speaks English, his best friend Raymond only speaks French, but they keep saying the same thing.
- The constant eating of chocolate ice cream. When both Ghost Dog and Pearline turn down a cone within seconds of each other, it's a good sign that the mood is about to change.
- Shout-Out: to Frankenstein, as well as an appearance by Gary Farmer where he calls the gangster who shoots one of his pigeon "stupid fucking white man." Farmer is even credited as "Nobody," the character he played in Jarmusch's previous film Deadman, whose Catch Phrase is "Stupid Fucking White Man".
- Spiritual Successor: To Deadman. The two films can be taken as part of a thematic series, similar to his early series of films.
- And to Le Samouraï, (1967) which was also about a Bushido-following assassin.
- Wouldn't Hit a Girl: Louie wouldn't. Not everyone goes by those rules...
- Worthy Opponent: Ghost Dog and Ray Vargo, in their brief scene together, show respect for each other. Also, Louie's friend Vinny, (who is literally seconds away from dying from a wound inflicted by Ghost Dog) says of Ghost Dog "One good thing about this Ghost Dog guy... he's taking us out in the old way. Like real fucking gangsters."