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Film / Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

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Live by the code, die by the code.

If one were to say in a word what the condition of being a samurai is, its basis lies first in seriously devoting one's body and soul to his master.

An unusual mix of the samurai and gangster genres, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is a 1999 movie by independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, starring Forest Whitaker.

The story follows a hitman who calls himself Ghost Dog in the employ of The Mafia. Ghost Dog has a Foreign Culture Fetish for Japan in general and the samurai in particular, and strictly adheres to a samurai code derived from The Hagakure (a collection of quotations and musings from a famous samurai), and snippets from the book pop up during the movie.

Ghost Dog sees himself as a retainer (in the servant sense) of a local Mafia member named Louie, who saved Ghost Dog's life years ago. As a result, about a couple of times a year Ghost Dog performs totally untraceable assassinations on behalf of Louie and the mob family that Louie is a member of. But during the latest hit things get complicated, and the plot moves forward from there.

It's a quirky movie 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 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 installments.)

Its independent nature prevented it from receiving much attention, but it did receive fairly good praise from critics and has become a minor Cult Classic. Not to be confused with Cop Dog, a film about a ghost dog, who is also a cop.

This film provides examples of:

  • 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.
  • Artistic License – Gun Safety: Averted on meta level. It's a big no-no in the film industry to point a gun other than a completely harmless prop at someone, especially towards the headnote . When Ghost Dog and Louie meet, Ghost Dog has a gun pointed at Louie's head for the entire time. The gun was a prop, while it's being pointed at Louie is a perspective trick - the barrel wasn't really pressed to John Tormey's head. Since the entire scene is The Oner, when Ghost Dog has to shoot Marini, instead of using his own gun (an useless prop), he instead pulls Louie's piece, as there was just no other way around shooting a scene requiring the actor to fire few blanks and make it safe.
  • 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.
  • Badass Bookworm: Ghost Dog apparently quite loves to read.
  • Badass Longcoat: Ghost Dog
  • Bilingual Bonus: Any dialogue between Ghost Dog and Raymond. "It's a Han-Chewie thing." In the French dub version, the barrier wouldn't exist, so they had the character's origin changed from Haitian to West African, and asked Raymond's Ivorian-born actor to dub himself in Yoruba.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Ghost Dog kills everyone in Ray Vargo's outfit except for his "master", Louie... who is ordered by Louise to kill Ghost Dog to avenge the death of her father. Pearline and Raymond witness the execution, a heartbreaking event that they are helpless to prevent. But in the end of it, Ghost Dog remained loyal to his principles, Louie is fine and alive, Raymond ends up with hefty stack of money and Pearline reads the Hagakure that Ghost Dog left her, finally coming to truly understand her enigmatic friend and possibly to follow in his footsteps.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: Ghost Dog is more honorable and humane than the mobsters he hunts, showing undying loyalty and gratitude to Louie. However, he is not a good man. He kills people for a living, steals cars and license plates in the course of his work, and even steals an innocent couple's clothes at gunpoint.
  • Blood from the Mouth: Mauve Shirt Vinny has this just before he dies of his wounds.
  • Book Ends: The film opens and closes with The Hagakure quotes.
  • Born in the Wrong Century: Just about every gangster and Ghost Dog himself feel that they are living in the wrong era and wish they could live the "old school ways".
  • Brick Joke: Sonny Valerio, a middle aged Italian mobster professes his love for Public Enemy early in the movie in what seems like a throwaway joke... but near the end of the movie is actually seen alone in his house blasting PE and rapping along.
  • The Cameo/Actor Allusion: Gary Farmer briefly reprises his role from Dead Man 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: Ghost Dog was originally sent to kill Handsome Frank for sleeping with Louise, the daughter of The Don, Ray Vargo. There's two problems: the first is that Handsome Frank is a made man, and as such is supposed to be above getting killed except in very specific circumstances, so Vargo wants the hit to be totally untraceable and impossible to link to their Family's higher ups. Second is that despite the attempts to get Louise out of the way so there'd be no danger to her and no witnesses to Frank's killing, she was there and saw what happened. Vargo is furious over Louise being traumatized, and because she can describe the killer the Family is honor bound to "avenge" Frank's death. It doesn't end well for Vargo and company, as Ghost Dog kills the entire mafia outfit with the exceptions of Louie and Louise.
    Louie: This guy is a professional. Going after him can be very dangerous.
  • Cool Versus Awesome: As pointed out in Brows Held High, "it's a mafia vs samurai for Christ's sake"
  • 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.
    • Also evinced by Ray Vargo, when the mafiosi receive a note from Ghost Dog with a quote from the Hagakure.
      Vargo: It's poetry. The poetry of war.
  • The Don: Ray Vargo, although he seems to care about nothing except his daughter anymore, so the Family is falling apart.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • In keeping with his ancient samurai code, Ghost Dog obeys Louie without question, even if this means becoming a hitman.
    • Ghost Dog's murder of the two hunters for killing a bear also qualifies, even if they were poaching.
  • 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?
    Vinny: You know what you are, Louie? You're a fuckin' male chauvinist pig.
    Louie: What do you mean, I'm a male chauvinist pig? You just shot a broad.
    Vinny: A cop. I just shot a cop. They wanna be equal? I made her equal.
  • Dramatic Irony: Ghost Dog adamantly follows an idealised version of the Bushido code (which was already a highly idealised vision of samurai conduct), thinking of himself as a samurai serving to his master. A code that Louie not only doesn't know, but also doesn't understand or believe in, creating a lot of awkward situations between the two and eventually forcing Louie to shoot Ghost Dog, being sure otherwise his retainer will try to kill him.
  • 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.
    • Many viewers may assume The Hagakure, a 17th-century guide to the Samurai, is an Encyclopedia Exposita, but is in fact a real book on which the film is (loosely) framed.
  • Evil Old Folks: The Italian mobsters. Almost without exception they're all old and out of shape.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Ray Vargo doesn't bargain, plead or do anything else than fix his suit when Ghost Dog gives him a wordless nod to prepare himself. He doesn't make a sound even after being shot, and just sits back down, leans back, and dies. Also, in the end Ghost Dog himself calmly accepts his fate when Louie has to shoot him.
  • Foreshadowing: As pointed out in this video, all the old cartoons the characters watch directly match up with a part of the film. (Spoilers, obviously).
  • 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 Bang:
    "You know, Louie, there's one good thing about this Ghost Dog guy."
    "What's that, Vin?"
    "He's sending us out the old way. Like real fucking gangsters."
  • Go Out with a Smile: Ghost Dog dies happy that he remained loyal to both his boss and his own principles.
  • Guns Akimbo: Ghost Dog calmly takes down the entire Mafia hideout in a subversion of John Woo style.
  • Gun Twirling: Sort of. Ghost Dog has an... interesting way of putting away his guns. He is actually doing a version of the shiburi, the traditional samurai sword-cleaning twirl, adapted for handguns.
  • 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.
  • Hero of Another Story: The RZA's character is implied to be this, as both he and Ghost Dog share a mutual respect for one another.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Ghost Dog and Raymond, even though they don't speak the same language.
  • Hitman with a Heart: Ghost Dog. An untraceable assassin who spares a woman from his latest job, (despite the fact that he has no idea who she is and could identify him) and forms a friendship with a young local girl over the books they read.
  • Hit Me, Dammit!: Louie, believing that Ghost Dog's actions have doomed him to being killed by his own Crime Family, tells Ghost Dog to just shoot him and get it over with. After Ghost Dog initially refuses, Louie just demands it again and louder so Ghost Dog shoots Louie in the shoulder, then justifies it after the fact by saying that Louie will now have a cover story and can claim that Ghost Dog attacked him. This buys Ghost Dog and Louie just enough time for Ghost Dog to wipe out the entire crime family.
  • Homeless Pigeon Person: While he's not homeless, (if only because he lives in a one room shack on a roof) the lead character becomes known to the bad guys as 'the ***ing bird man' cause he keeps pigeons.
  • Honorable Warrior's Death: Sort of. Louie's friend Vinny is glad to die fighting instead of continuing to grow old and die with the mob long past their glory days.
    Vinny: There's one good thing about this Ghost Dog guy... he's sending us out in the old way. Like real fucking gangsters.
  • 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.
  • I Owe You My Life: The main character, who sees himself as a follower of Bushido, swears allegiance to a mobster who saved his life in the past, and currently operates as an assassin for that mobster.
  • Ignored Expert: Nobody listens to Louie's warning about Ghost Dog being highly efficient Professional Killer, even if he repeats himself about it twice.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills
    You shot me in the exact same fucking place as last time!
  • Intergenerational Friendship: Between Pearline and Ghost Dog.
  • Ironic Echo: "Better him/me than you, right Louie?" gets repeated throughout the movie few times by different characters, always changing the meaning of the line.
  • Life Will Kill You: The old consigliere gets a heart attack when Ghost Dog suddenly enters the room with guns at hand.
  • Literal-Minded: Played for laughs. Louie realised there is just no way he will be able to explain Ghost Dog killing another member of the outfit in their defense, so he orders Ghost Dog to finish him already to spare him additional torture from the mob.
    Louie: Look, if you're my retainer, whatever that is, you do what I say and fucking shoot me! (Ghost Dog shoots Louie in an arm) Oww! The hell you did that for?!
    Ghost Dog: (in deadpan) You told me to.
  • Loners Are Freaks: It gets even invoked by Pearline. Apparently Ghost Dog has a well-established reputation as such in his hood, living in a shack with a pigeons and always being alone. He himself is fully aware how lonely he is and how much it affects him.
  • Loose Floorboard Hiding Spot: A bit more complex than a typical example. Ghost Dog has a loose, small board on the floor of his shack, hiding a key under it. It then requires to properly slide around and re-arrange other boards to find the lock for that key and also make it possible to open the hatch of a gun box hidden in the floor. Without sliding the boards around, both the lock and the boards would hold the hatch closed.
  • Made of Iron: Ghost Dog takes three bullets in the chest, two of them right in the heart area. He has enough strength to make few steps and talk for a short while with Louie. That determination echoes a quote from the Hagakure spoken earlier in the movie. "Even if a samurai's head were to suddenly be cut off, he should still be able to perform one more action with certainty."
  • The Mafia: Deconstructed. Ray Vargo has bankrupted his outfit by putting all the money in a trust fund for his daughter. The entire organization is made out of old men way past their prime and they are so low on both manpower and resources they can't even pay off a landlord asking for past due rent payment.
  • 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.
  • Men Are the Expendable Gender: Killing and combat are performed by male characters. Ghost Dog spares Louise after killing Handsome Frank. Finally, Louie is horrified when Vinny shoots a female police officer.
  • 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.
  • Neighbourhood-Friendly Gangsters: Zig-Zagged. On one hand the guys forming the local mafia outfit are simply too old to be dangerous anymore and most of their assets were put on a trust fund for the don's daughter, with most of their operations being apparently closed or liquidated. On the other, they still murder few random people when searching for Ghost Dog just because they were fitting the description close enough.
  • The Oner: The meeting between Louie and Ghost Dog is shot in full sequence. Not only it involved writing it in a way to guarantee both safety of John Tormey and finding a way to still fire a gun, but required from Whitaker to hold his outstretched arm holding a gun in it for two minutes, while keeping a stoic face and not making a single twitch.
  • Only a Flesh Wound: What's a bullet or two in the shoulder?
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: The titular character is always called by his nickname.
  • 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: Sonny, the mafioso rap fan. We even see him rapping along to Public Enemy's "Cold Lampin' with Flavor" in his bathroom right before Ghost Dog kills him.
  • The Public Domain Channel: Cartoons. So many cartoons.
  • The Quiet One: Not counting a voice-over (and that's only for reading short passages from The Hagakure) and despite being the main character, Ghost Dog doesn't say a word for first 37 minutes. For the rest of the movie, he has only few brief dialogues.
  • Rashomon Plot: The scene where Ghost Dog's life is saved is seen differently depending on who is recalling it. As Ghost Dog remembers it, Louie comes by to see what's going on when a group of thugs are giving GD a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown, and the leader of the thugs attacking Ghost Dog points a gun at GD, at which point Louie shoots the guy dead. When Louie relates the story to his fellow mobsters, the thug draws a gun and points it at Louie, not Ghost Dog, and Louie shoots the guy in self defense. Either GD's memory is playing tricks on him, or Louie is lying so he won't have to explain why he'd bother saving a black kid.
    • The book itself turns up in the movie, underscoring a theme of how various characters are essentially seeing completely different events depending on their point of view.
  • "Reading Is Cool" Aesop: Ghost Dog is well-read, and he and Pearline bond over their love of books.
  • Real Men Wear Pink: The Italian mobsters love old cartoons.
  • Reality Has No Subtitles: Zig zagged. Ghost Dog's best friend is a French-speaking ice cream seller, whose dialog is usually subtitled but every now and then it isn't.
  • 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.
    • Raymond is constantly going on about how nutritious ice cream supposedly is. Near the end, however, he admits that ice cream isn't very healthy.
    • 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.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: After taking over what's left of the family in the finale, Luise is seen far more collected, along with wearing a classy dress and a string of pearls.
  • Shoot Him, He Has a Wallet!: Played with. Ghost Dog does have a gun on him and goes for it in the final confrontation. But the gun is unloaded and should they've been standing closer, Louie would probably even notice the empty mag well. He basically forced him to get shot in a misguided self-defense.
  • Shout-Out:
    • To Frankenstein, or at least its ending.
    • 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 Dead Man, whose catchphrase is "Stupid Fucking White Man".
    • When Ghost Dog poses as a real estate agent, he introduces himself as Bob Solo, a combination of Harrison Ford's characters: Bob Falfa (from American Graffiti) and Han Solo (from Star Wars).
    • The radio device Ghost Dog uses to bypass electrical locks and electronics is a modernized version of the massive ring of keys from Le Samouraï. Jef Costello was able to to steal any Citroën DS thanks to it.
    • The way Ghost Dog kills Sonny is a reference to a similar scene in Branded to Kill.
  • Showdown at High Noon: With a bit of Leaning on the Fourth Wall, as the camera is directly on Whitaker's face when he says the following line.
    Ghost Dog: ( To Louie, standing few paces away on an empty street) So... This is the final shoot-out scene.
  • Shown Their Work: Just check Genius Bonus for more details.
  • Spiritual Successor: To Dead Man. 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.
  • The Stoic: One of the most defining characteristics of Ghost Dog is how calm and collected he is in all kind of situations. He is never shown losing his temper, even when he finds his home trashed and all his pigeons killed or when obviously pissed when meeting two poachers. And despite barely changing expression or voice tone, he's still capable of expressing wide range of emotions when he wants to.
  • Storming the Castle: Downplayed, to fit the theme of the old, ineffectual mafia. Ghost Dog ends up storming the forest mansion in which Ray Vargo is hiding, in the process killing all his made men. It's very brief and takes less than a minute, without facing almost any real resistance.
  • Time for Plan B: Invoked verbatim. After a bird sits on a silencer of his rifle in crucial moment and thus makes it impossible to simply snipe out Mr. Vargo, Ghost Dog packs the gun and goes head-on to storm the mansion.
  • Vicariously Ambitious: One way to interpret Ghost Dog's dying words to Louie at the their final meeting is that Ghost Dog has always had the intention of getting Louie to the top of the mob hierarchy, and part of why he allows Louie to kill him is because once Louie has avenged the death of his bosses, he can become a Boss with his reputation intact.
    You're gonna be the boss of your own clan now, right Louie? There's no one else left... ain't that right, Louie?
  • Western Samurai: The titular Ghost Dog is an African American slumming it in the streets of Harlem who follows the Bushido code, granting his servitude to mobster Louie for saving his life as the code dictates.
  • Where the Hell Is Springfield?: The film was shot mostly in Jersey City, New Jersey, but the movie never mentions where the story is set. License plates reveal it is in "The Industrial State" and a vehicle from another state has on its license plate "The Highway State", both of which are fictional state nicknames.
  • Wouldn't Hit a Girl: Louie wouldn't. Not everyone goes by those rules...
    • Ghost Dog wouldn't either. He spared Louise twice.
  • 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) is grateful to die a good death — it's better than continuing to grow old and toothless.



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Ghost Dog

The titular Ghost Dog is an African American slumming it in the streets of Harlem who follows the Bushido code, granting his servitude to mobster Louie for saving his life as the code dictates.

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