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Reviewed April 10th, 2001 by Todd Terwilliger


Let me get this out of the way first: Forest Whitaker would not be my choice to play a samurai of any sort. He is not exactly thin, svelte, or athletic in the sense of how I see a samurai as athletic. And, last I checked, he was not Japanese. But my expectations be damned! Forest does not play your average samurai, and Ghost Dog is not your average samurai movie.

Whitaker plays the titular Ghost Dog. Dog lives on the roof of a building with his pigeons and samurai ethos. He is bound by honor to Louie (John Tormey), a gangster in the crew headed by Ray Vargo (Henry Silva). In order to pay off a life-debt to Louie, Ghost Dog does jobs for him and, through him, the mob with great success and efficiency. Unfortunately, one such job turns unforeseeably awry. Vargo orders Ghost Dog eliminated. Dog must defend himself from the mob while still fulfill his debt to Louie.

How Ghost Dog became enamored with the samurai tradition is a bit of a mystery. Throughout the film, he quotes passages from The Way of The Samurai which help explain his motives and actions to the audience. Although we don't know how or when Ghost Dog turned to the Way, we do get glimpses of how it might have happened through Ghost Dog's relationship with a little neighborhood girl (Camille Winbush). Dog passes on the seeds to the girl as, perhaps, it had been passed on to him.

The mafia family is not your average crew. It's a dysfunctional quirky family. One of the mobsters is a huge rap fan. During a sit-down, he quotes Public Enemy. When the boss learns that Ghost Dog communicates with Louie via pigeon, discussion turns to exactly which breed of pigeon was used. Louis himself is hapless and almost helpless. He is more a passenger to the events that carry him forward than a participant.

As I prefaced this review, Forest Whitaker is not my image of the samurai. However, he won me over. As Ghost Dog, he does not attempt to be a traditional samurai but to use the teachings and discipline of that ancient art in his own urban environment and urban style. Whitaker displays the tranquility and calm deportment of a mastered soul very well.

The score, by rapper RZA, is excellent. The soundtrack, presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, preserves the depth and bass of the hip-hop sound very well, without sacrificing dialog clarity. Whitaker's basso voice is never muffled or blurry. There is little in the way of surround action and all the dialog is locked into the center channel. However, in a few of the penultimate moments, there is some movement across the soundstage.

Visually, Ghost Dog shines. Blacks are very deep and form a great contrast to the warmer colors. As much of the film takes place at night, this contrast is very important. Flesh tones are not too pale nor too red and the details are sharp. The 1.85:1 transfer is anamorphic and looks great on a television capable of presenting the image in that form.

Artisan has slipped a couple of special features onto this edition. The best of which is the isolated score. As mentioned before, the music by RZA is a highlight of the film. The option to play only his score is one I have used more than once. There is also a 30 minute documentary, a music video, and a couple of deleted scenes.

It is difficult to categorize Ghost Dog as a film, it has elements of a gangster movie, elements of an action movie, and elements of an art-house movie. Director Jim Jarmusch, well known for his Indie films, throws another excellent curve ball with Ghost Dog. Highly enjoyable, yet quirky and somewhat indefinable, the film is, at the least an experience. Artisan's excellent package makes this experience one worth having.


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