Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)

ghost dog the way of the samurai poster 1999 movie
8.0 Overall Score
Story: 8/10
Acting: 8/10
Visuals: 8/10

Interesting blending of samurai culture and gangster film

Tone of the movie is hard to nail down

Movie Info

Movie Name: Ghost Dog:  The Way of the Samurai

Studio:  Pandora Filmproduktion/ARD Degeto Film

Genre(s): Action/Adventure/Drama

Release Date(s):  May 19, 1999 (Cannes)/October 6, 1999 (France)/March 24, 2000 (US)

MPAA Rating: R

ghost dog the way of the samurai forest whitaker

Just a man and his pigeons

Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) lives by a code.  He sees things as things were in feudal Japan.  When his life was saved by a low-level gangster named Louie (John Tormey), he believes his debt makes him Louie’s retainer.  After Louie arranges a bad hit, the elimination of Ghost Dog is necessary since he is a liability.  Ghost Dog’s honor and code are about to be tested.

Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, Ghost Dog:  The Way of the Samurai is a crime-action thriller drama.  The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and received positive reviews.  The Criterion Collection released a remastered version of the film (Criterion #1057).

I remember first watching Ghost Dog thinking it was going to be a cool samurai movie full of action…which of course you don’t get.  There are some gunfights and practice swordplay, but the “samurai” of Ghost Dog is more about the honor and code of a samurai and not the samurai painted in movies…with an interesting premises, Ghost Dog:  The Way of the Samurai is a different type of movie that gets better with age.

ghost dog the way of the samurai forest whitaker assassin

“Mess with the dog, you get bit” (if Ghost Dog was an ’80s or ’90s action movie)

The story has a strange tone to it.  There is some humor amongst the other characters, but Ghost Dog himself is dead serious.  He has a belief and he follows that belief…to the T…even if it means a big sacrifice.  Ghost Dog not only embodies his message he also sees himself as a teacher and passes on his learning.  Ghost Dog knows that his ways are going to get him killed and shows remorse about this, but he still carries through which can either be read as honorable or foolish…especially since he works for criminals who have no morals.  In general, the movie has been compared to the Jean-Pierre Melville 1967 film Le Samourai.

The movie is a showcase for Forest Whitaker, and Jarmusch said he wrote the script with him in mind.  He has that haunting look and there is that no-nonsense aspect to him.  He handles the drama well, but he also demonstrates skill during the action scenes when he does turn into a killing machine.  He’s backed up by a nice bunch of character actors and an appearance by RZA who wrote the music for the film.

ghost dog the way of the samurai forest whitaker rza

Ghost Dog has everyone’s respect

Visually the movie is rather simple, but there is a strange world created in Ghost Dog.  It seems that death is largely overlooked.  There are murders (some very blatant) throughout the movie and there is no reaction from those around.  There is a numbness throughout the film from characters and Ghost Dog himself.  The movie contrasts this numbness by frequently showing over-the-top cartoons from Woody Woodpecker to The Simpsons which often show more violence.

Ghost Dog:  The Way of the Samurai is a strange film.  It probably will take a couple watches to get the feel down and don’t go into it with preconceived notions or expectations.  It is a drama with action, but it is an action with drama as well…it depends on how you read the movie.  It is also a nice movie to revisit if you haven’t seen it in years to see if you have a different take on the characters or their actions…Ghost Dog endures.

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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