Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai: A Movie Review
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999). Isn't that a really cool title? The film starred Forest Whitaker, who, in my opinion, is quietly one of the great actors of his generation. I thought he was brilliant in The Last King of Scotland (2006), a masterpiece of a film, though a couple of scenes are hard to watch. When Whitaker does do action movies, he tends to play the role of a thinking man's tough guy. Therefore, I thought he was well cast in the urban Samurai role. The Samurai were Japan's 'thinking man's tough guys,' bound by honor and tradition, and all that.
And how cool is that? Forest Whitaker is playing a sword-wielding ghetto Samurai, I thought to myself, when I saw the advertisements for the movie----something like Shaft meets Sonny Chiba (The Street Fighter). Something like that. Something more than what we got, I'm sorry to say.
I wanted to embrace this movie like you wouldn't believe. But at the end of the day, with a heavy heart, I had to admit to myself that I could not do that.
As I see it, the movie had one fundamental problem. Like a man wearing a suit two sizes too small for him, the Ghost Dog character (Whitaker) was too big for the story he was involved in. Ghost Dog the Samurai was a compelling character, who would have been better served being in a different movie, with more exciting stuff to do against more interesting and varied opposition.
Here's the plot. Ghost Dog is introduced as a Mafia assassin. He is in the service of a particular Mafia crew's 'captain,' or 'capo,' you might say---a street-level middle management type within the hierarchy of a Mafia organization or 'Family.' Ghost Dog's allegiance is to that specific man rather than the Mafia, per se, or that particular 'Family.' Many years ago, when Ghost Dog had been a teenager, the very same gangster intervened to save his life.
So, Ghost Dog places himself in the personal service of the gangster. The gangster decides that the best way GD can serve him is to kill the people he tells him to kill. On GD's last assignment something goes wrong. There is a complication and then---wait for it---THE HUNTER BECOMES THE HUNTED. Now the Mob, including his former patron, are out to kill the Ghost Dog.
Now, the story was not as grand as it needed to be. This adventure needed to be Shaft meets Sonny Chiba (The Streetfighter). Let me make myself perfectly clear. I'm going to say something I usually never say: this movie needed to be a lot more violent than it was.
Under the heading of 'Poop or get off the pot,' we have the fact that there was a scene in which GD brandished a really cool Samurai sword and showed that he knew how to use it; but then Ghost Dog never had occasion to cut anybody with it. What a gip!
Everything was settled with guns and shooting. Fine, but every single mobster Ghost Dog went up against was sixty-five years old, if he was a day, and fat and slow. In other words---no competition for the Ghost Dog. That, in addition to the fact that GD never actually uses his Samurai sword, is what I mean when I say that the plot was too small for the compelling character that was Ghost Dog.
Ghost Dog needed to be put on an adventure that tested him, that demanded he use all of his skill and knowledge to survive. Because this story did not full extend the Ghost Dog character---far from it---I never believed he was in any jeopardy.
My second issue with the film is this: I wish we would have been told how Ghost Dog became a Samurai. The movie never tells us this, but I, personally, really wanted to know. It was a matter of some fascination for me as to how it happened. Who trained him? Where did he get his training? Did he go to Japan for a time? Was he trained by the Yakuza? What?
I am referring to the scene in which we see the Ghost Dog on the rooftop of the building where he lives. He has set up a small shrine to a woman, who was apparently very important to him. He prays for a minute, then gets up and goes throw form exercises both with his Samurai sword; and he did a little bit barehanded.
Anyway, nothing ever comes of it.
Let's wrap this up.
There is more that I could say, but that would be nitpicking. The main point stands. The story is far too small for the compelling main character; and, in my view, all other concerns I have, are a direct result of the fundamental flaw I've been talking about.
The way I see it, the real sin that this movie committed is that it negotiated with reality. Obviously, that is not something I think movies should do. What am I talking about? What do I mean by 'negotiation with reality' in films?
Here's the thing: If you're going to make a movie about a black, American, big city, Mob hit man/Samurai in an guns and blazes martial arts film, then make a movie about a black, American, big city, Mob hit man/Samurai in a guns and blazes martial arts film. In other words, what I am saying is that this movie 'lost its nerve,' failed to hold onto the 'strength of its convictions'---however you want to put it.
That's my main complaint: the movie didn't finish what it started. Its as if someone said Hey, I got this really great idea for a movie! Its about this guy and he's a black guy living in the hood. And he's a real cool, real tough, real hardcore guy. But get this: he's a hit man for the Mob and an honest-to-God Samurai! He's got a Samurai sword and everything. Its gonna be slammin'. Guess what the title is. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Its gonna be soooo cool!-------and then the film got the air let out of it fairly early on, and its as if someone else, perhaps, said: Hang on a minute! In 'real life' people don't run around doing Karate/Kung Fu fighting, swordplay stuff. Black dudes don't do Oriental philosophy, man!
This film negotiated fantasy with reality. Reality won to the detriment of the movie. My feeling was disappointment and frustration with the movie for its unfulfilled promise.
Thank you for reading.