REVIEW: "Ghost Dog" Successfully Mixes Mafia, Samurai and Hip-Hop
by David Bourgeois
(indieWIRE/2.14.2000) — Unmistakably his most accessible film in his 19-year career, Jim Jarmusch, the director of such films as “Stranger Than Paradise,” “Mystery Train,” “Down by Law,” and “Dead Man” succeeds by intersecting three disparate worlds: the Mafia, the ancient Japanese samurai, and hip-hop.
Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) spends his nights living clandestinely among his pigeon friends atop an apartment building and spends his days as a for-hire assassin for the mob in New York. He adheres to the strict code and writings found in an ancient Samurai text. No one knows much about him — who he is, where he lives, or his modus operandi — with the exception of mob capo Louie (John Tormey), who once saved his life. He’s never forgotten the kindness bestowed upon him by Louie, and thus becomes an adroit, loyal hitman for the Mafia.
Louie hires Ghost Dog for a routine hit: to kill Handsome Frank (Richard Portnow), who’s sleeping with the boss’ daughter, Louise (Tricia Vessey). The hit goes well, and he puts Louise on a bus to get her out of town. Alas, she comes back, and mob boss Vargo (Henry Silva) pins the blame squarely on Ghost Dog. The word is out that a hit is ordered on Ghost Dog — who often spouts words of wisdom from the Samurai text — but he remains adamant in his respect and protection of Louie; he goes after every other member of the family, though.
This film — while not as original and haunting as “Dead Man” — is also Jarmusch’s funniest to date. The world of rap and Sinatra are humorously fused during one scene when the mob has a sit-down. They’re questioning Ghost Dog’s name — claiming it’s similar to many names of rap stars. One capo, Sonny Valerio (Cliff Gorman), claims his favorite rapper is Flavor Flav, from Public Enemy, and quotes lyrics from one of their raps. Other scenes of Mafia ineptitude and one scene in particular (where Ghost Dog offs a capo in a particular way) are amusing and fresh comedic territory for the director who nearly single-handedly defined independent cinema. (It should also be noted that the Wu-Tang Clan‘s RZA — pronounced “Rizzah” — lends a moody, hip-hop instrumental score