Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
Studio Line: Artisan - Live By The Code. Die By The Code.

East meets West in this hip-hop infused samurai-gangster pic in which Forest Whitaker plays a professional killer who goes by the name of Ghost Dog and who lives by the age-old code of the Samurai.

When Ghost Dog's code is dangerously betrayed by the dysfunctional mafia family that occasionally employs him, he must find a way to defend himself without breaking the code of the Samurai.

Director: Jim Jarmusch
Cast: Forest Whitaker, John Tormey, Cliff Gorman, Henry Silva, Isaach De Bankolé, Tricia Vessey, Victor Argo
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 27 chapters; rated R; 116 min.; $24.98; street date 8/15/00.
Supplements: 30-Minute Special Feature: The Odyssey: The Journey Into The Life Of A Samurai; Deleted Scenes; Music Video; Isolated Music Score; Trailers and TV Spots; Cast and Crew Information.
Purchase: DVD | Music soundtrack - Various Artists

Picture/Sound/Extras: B/B+/B-

One thing I'll say about Ghost Dog:The Way of the Samurai: it's different. I'm not tremendously sure that's a good thing in this case, but I won't argue its distinctiveness.

The film tells the tale of Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker), a tubby black urban samurai who subsides as a contract killer. He appears to work exclusively for Louie (John Tormey), a minor gangster who once save GD's life. Due to his adherence to the samurai code, GD feels forever indebted to Louie, a factor that plays an important role in the story.

GD acts on a contract issued by Louie, but complications ensue, and the film evolves into essentially a war between GD and a Mafia family. The movie shows two different cultures facing extinction in the modern world- samurai and gangsters - and depicts the different ways that adapt to changes in society and attempt to continue their lines.

It's an interesting approach, and while I'll admit that there's probably enough depth to it that it'd offer additional information upon subsequent viewings, I found the execution lacking. Frankly, GD plods along at a slow pace and rarely offers enough stimulating material to make the wait worthwhile. I thought the piece seemed muddled overall; it wanted to appear mystical and cool but it couldn't quite get there. The result makes for an intermittently provocative but frequently dull experience.

One aspect of the film that I felt completely fell flat came from its humor. Essentially, the movie contains two kinds of gags: there are some wacky shots of the gangsters - such as the one who loves Public Enemy - and we see the lack of communication between GD and his French-speaking friend Raymond (Isaach De Bankolé) portrayed comically. For example, a scene might have GD say, "I gotta go - it's getting late" and will respond, "I guess you have to go because it's getting late." I suppose the gags could have seemed more lame, but it's hard to imagine how.

Ultimately, I wanted to like Ghost Dog. I heard nothing but positive comments about it, and it sounded interesting. Unfortunately, it only occasionally lives up to its hype; for the most part it remains slow-moving and dull. I think the seed of a terrific film exists in there, but it didn't quite emerge.

The DVD:

Ghost Dog appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The picture contains some concerns but it generally looks fairly good.

Sharpness seemed consistently strong, with an image that appeared crisp and accurate throughout the film; a slight amount of softness was evident at times, but not much. Moiré effects and jagged edges occurred occasionally, and I also noticed moderate artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV. The print showed mild grain at times plus a few speckles and nicks; however, it generally looked clean.

Colors seemed slightly muddled at times but usually were nicely bright and true, with solid reproduction. I noticed no problems related to noise or bleeding, and the hues were clear most of the time. Black levels were appropriately dark, but contrast was slightly weak and shadow detail could be overly heavy. The image didn't seem horribly thick, but I had some trouble discerning parts of it. Despite these modest concerns, the picture still appeared largely satisfactory.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix of Ghost Dog was also generally very good. The soundfield offered a nice ambient aura but lacked much showiness. The film featured many instances of birds flying or cars driving from speaker to speaker but not much else that spread the track around the channels. Actually, there's a vague "city street" atmosphere that emerged nicely from all five speakers; it added to the enveloping nature of the mix. The score also blended well in the entire spectrum and contributed to the effectiveness of the track. The soundfield doesn't appear terribly ambitious, but it got the job done.

The audio quality seemed very solid. Dialogue appeared distinct and natural, with no signs of intelligibility problems or edginess. The music lacked a little crispness at the high end - the upper registers could come across as slightly flat - but it contributed some good bass and appeared generally clear. Effects were clean and realistic; they offered no distortion and often packed a very satisfying punch. The mix didn't excel in any particular way but it provided a nicely evocative piece in general.

GD tosses in a few nice extras. First up is a surprisingly compelling documentary about the film called "Ghost Dog: The Odyssey. Created for BET, I figured it'd be a basic promotional puff piece, but while it has those elements, it nonetheless provides a solid overview of the picture. The 21-minute and 25-second program features interviews from Jarmusch, Whitaker, and the RZA and offers some nice background on the movie as a whole. It provides a bit of depth as to the meaning of the film and it adds to one's experience.

The DVD also features a section of deleted scenes. We find four "outtakes" that run a total of five minutes and 35 seconds. I found these mildly interesting but nothing special. However, I was happy to see they were all presented with 5.1 sound; you don't see that too often.

Speaking of sound, the DVD includes the RZA's isolated score. Unfortunately, it's only in 2.0 Surround, but it makes a nice addition to the package nonetheless.

Speaking of the RZA, we get the video for "Cakes", a song he did with Kool G. Rap. The clip includes a cameo from Whitaker and is generally mildly entertaining, though nothing revolutionary; it features the usual rap staples like conspicuous wealth and hot chicks. Still, though the song did nothing for me, it was a watchable little piece. Also note that it's uncensored, so the more explicit lyrics have not changed or deleted for the video.

Finally, the DVD gives us three trailers and three TV spots plus an array of cast and crew biographies. We find entries for ten actors and nine crew members. Some of the listings are more comprehensive than others - Whitaker's is quite good - but for the most part, they're basic but decent. We also get some mildly interesting production notes in the DVD's booklet.

Ghost Dog offers an unusual kind of action movie, and while it occasionally hits its mark, for the most part it seemed to fall short of its goals. The film appears deeper than most in the genre but since it generally failed to maintain my attention, I'm not terribly tempted to dig any deeper. The DVD provides generally strong picture and sound plus a couple of decent extras. Ghost Dog may merit a rental just because it's different and occasionally interesting, but I can't recommend more than that.

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