Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai

 Written by Joe the Revelator

It was the description of Ghost Dog that first piqued my interest. An inner-city gangster played by the soft spoken Forest Whitaker adopts the code of the samurai, Bushido, through the Hagakure. Having read the Hagakure I was curious how its code and ethics could be applied to modern living. Most of the lessons therein are quite strict, and encourage the vassal/retainer/servant to live as if they'd died already, as if life itself were a dream we're all waiting to wake up from, thus freeing the vassal to serve their lord in selfless perfection.

In my own humble opinion this is where the Hagakure is ill-fitted to modern, especially American, lifestyles. Even if you find a lord worthy of service, be it a Well-breed southerner with a long family legacy, or an industry tycoon with the leadership skills of John C. Maxwell; blind, selfless devotion often proves disastrous for both parties unless it's strictly a business arrangement. The "Lord" whom Ghost Dog chooses to follow is a perfect example of why the the way of the samurai, though fondly remembered, remains antiquated.

Guido with a vassal

Ghost Dog lives a quiet, secluded life in the slums. He communicates with his mob connections through carrier pigeon and performs hits when he's called upon. He reads classic literature, practices with his katana on the rooftop, and plays chess with his best friend, an ice-cream man who speaks french and can't understand a word Ghost Dog says. His existence is unburdened by complications or desires other than service, duty, and honor.

Louie is a mobster with a heart of pyrite. When he finds young Ghost Dog being beaten senseless by a gang of men, he puts a slug in the skull of one of the assailants, thus earning himself a life debt from Ghost Dog. But throughout the movie it becomes abundantly clear that Louie neither understands what a vassal is, nor does he deserve one. There are several cringe-inducing moments when Ghost Dog states that he is Louie's retainer, and the Italian mobster simply shrugs it off or exclaims in bewilderment he doesn't know what a vassal is.

The betrayals, the slow-motion manhunt for Ghost Dog by the mobsters (who are all over-the-hill Italians with Sopranos accents) and the inevitable bloody conclusion are all highly predictable, and play out at the pace of a nursing home relay race. At times it felt like the old men playing at mobsters weren't taking the movie seriously.

RZA Sepukku

Aside from Forest Whitaker's sporadic recitations of passages from the Hagakure, the only other bright spot in this movie came from RZA, who is notorious for being involved with martial art flicks. RZA's love of old Kung-Fu classics comes out his Ghost Dog's soundtrack, much like it did in Kill Bill, and only slightly less so in Blade Trinity.

But even with the RZA tracks bumping in the background, I can't recommend Ghost Dog. It's plodding. It's predictable. And, as I mentioned, the values borrowed from the Hagakure are poorly applied. Instead of a half-crocked gangster shootout, the producers should have spent their money recording an audio book of the Hagakure, narrated by Whitaker, with a light score from the RZA playing under the narration. I'd buy it.

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