Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is a 1999 American Action-Crime film written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. Forest Whitaker stars as the title character, the mysterious "Ghost Dog", a hitman in the employ of the Mafia, who follows the ancient code of the samurai as outlined in the book of Yamamoto Tsunetomo's recorded sayings, Hagakure.
Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) sees himself as a retainer of Louie (John Tormey), a local mobster, who saved Ghost Dog's life years ago. While living as a hired hitman for the Italian Mafia, he adheres to the code of the samurai, and interprets and applies the wisdom of the Hagakure in his contracts for the mob.
Louie tells Ghost Dog to kill a gangster, Handsome Frank, who is sleeping with the daughter (Tricia Vessey) of the mafia boss Vargo (Henry Silva). Ghost Dog arrives and kills the gangster, before seeing that the girl is also in the room at the time; she lends him a book; he leaves her alive, and exits. In order to avoid being implicated in the murder of a made man, Vargo and his associate Sonny Valerio decide to get rid of Ghost Dog. Louie knows practically nothing about Ghost Dog, and the hitman communicates only by homing pigeon. The mobsters start by tracing all the pigeon coops in town. They find Ghost Dog's cabin atop a building and kill his pigeons. Ghost Dog realizes he must kill the entire mafia or otherwise they will kill him and his master.
During the day, Ghost Dog frequently visits the park to see his best friend, an ice cream salesman named Raymond (Isaach De Bankolé) who speaks only French. Ghost Dog does not understand French and Raymond does not understand English, but the two seem to understand each other. Ghost Dog also makes friends with a little girl named Pearline (Camille Winbush), to whom he lends the book—Rashōmon and Other Stories—he received from Vargo's daughter. Paralleling a major theme of Rashōmon, Louie and Ghost Dog have different accounts of the circumstances of their meeting: in Louie's flashback he shoots Ghost Dog's attacker in self-defense, while in Ghost Dog's flashback, Louie shoots the attacker just as the attacker is about to kill Ghost Dog.
Eventually, Ghost Dog attacks Vargo's mansion single-handedly and kills almost everyone he encounters, sparing only Louie and Vargo's daughter. Though Louie feels some loyalty to Ghost Dog, he also feels that he must avenge the murder of boss Vargo, but it was stated that Vargo's daughter ordered him to murder Ghost Dog. At night, Ghost Dog kills Sonny Valerio in his house, shooting a bullet through Valerio´s bathroom pipe.
Louie finally confronts Ghost Dog at Raymond's ice cream stand with Raymond and Pearline watching, after he gave his copy of Hagakure to the latter. Ghost Dog is unwilling to attack his master and allows Louie to kill him. His last act is to give Louie the copy of Rashōmon and encourage him to read it.
- Forest Whitaker as Ghost Dog
- John Tormey as Louie
- Henry Silva as Ray Vargo
- Cliff Gorman as Sonny Valerio
- Isaach De Bankolé as Raymond
- Camille Winbush as Pearline
- Tricia Vessey as Louise Vargo
- Gene Ruffini as Old Consigliere
- Frank Minucci as Big Angie
- Richard Portnow as Handsome Frank
- Frank Adonis as Valerio's Bodyguard
- Victor Argo as Vinny
- Kenny Guay as Boy in Window
- Vince Viverito as Johnny Morini
- Dennis Liu as Chinese Restaurant Owner
- RZA as Samurai in Camouflage
- Gary Farmer as Nobody (Cayuga Native American)
- Shi Yan Ming as Kung-Fu Master
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.
Cartoons are also used as a metaphor to scene or plot dynamics. Handsome Frank watches a cartoon featuring Betty Boop corralling her pigeons moments before Ghost Dog, a fellow pigeon raiser, arrives to assassinate him. Ghost Dog is later seen handling his pigeons in the same manner as Betty. Boss Vargo watches a Felix the Cat cartoon wherein the Professor voices his frustration at capturing the elusive Felix and his magic bag, mirroring the mafia's inability to find and eliminate Ghost Dog, who carries his weapons and equipment in a black briefcase. Vargo and his daughter, Louise, watch a Woody Woodpecker cartoon in the car, immediately after Ghost Dog has been distracted by a woodpecker while sniping in the woods. The Pantry Panic features a staring contest between Woody and the Grim Reaper. Vargo's daughter watches an episode of "The Simpsons"'s "The Itchy & Scratchy Show" (in which Itchy and Scratchy threaten each other with increasingly bigger guns, before blowing up the earth) before the equally violent battle which concludes the film.
Critical response to the film was largely positive. On the Rotten Tomatoes review site, the film received an 82% "Certified Fresh" rating. The critical consensus was that the movie is "An innovative blend of samurai and gangster lifestyles." The film was nominated for a few awards but did not win any of them. Among the nominations were the Grand Prix of the Belgian Syndicate of Cinema Critics, the César Award for Best Foreign Film of 2000 and the Palme d'Or award at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival. The film grossed a worldwide total of $9,380,473, of which $3,308,029 was in the United States.