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Blu-Ray : Highly Recommended
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Release Date: November 17th, 2020 Movie Release Year: 1999

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai - Criterion Collection

Overview -

Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai is a fantastic early film from director Jim Jarmusch that focuses on a peaceful samurai warrior in New Jersey who moonlights as a hitman for the Italian mafia complete with original music from RZA. Criterion brings this film to a new 1080p HD transfer and a DTS-HD 5.1 audio mix, along with several great bonus features, both new and old. Highly Recommended.

Jim Jarmusch combines his love for the ice-cool crime dramas of Jean-Pierre Melville and Seijun Suzuki with the philosophical dimensions of samurai mythology for an eccentrically postmodern take on the hit-man thriller. In one of his defining roles, Forest Whitaker brings a commanding serenity to his portrayal of a Zen contract killer working for a bumbling mob outfit, a modern man who adheres steadfastly to the ideals of the Japanese warrior code even as chaos and violence spiral around him. Featuring moody cinematography by the great Robby Müller, a mesmerizing score by the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA, and a host of colorful character actors (including a memorably stone-faced Henry Silva), Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai plays like a pop-culture-sampling cinematic mixtape built around a one-of-a-kind tragic hero.

OVERALL:
Highly Recommended
Rating Breakdown
STORY
VIDEO
AUDIO
SPECIAL FEATURES
Tech Specs & Release Details
Technical Specs:
NEW 4K RESTORATION OF THE FILM
Video Resolution/Codec:
1080p AVC/MPEG-4
Length:
116
Aspect Ratio(s):
1.85:1
Audio Formats:
English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Subtitles/Captions:
English SDH
Special Features:
• PLUS: An essay by critic Greg Tate and quotations from Hagakure
Release Date:
November 17th, 2020

Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take

Ranking:

From a full-contact Kumite in Hong Kong (Bloodsport) to the mafia-run streets of New Jersey, Forest Whitaker removes his up-tight military police character from the limelight to become a quiet, slick ninja in Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai. Similar to Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 film Le Samourai, both films focus on killers who live by a code of ethics where their assassinations and murders define who they are. In essence, their work is a ballet of violence, but Jarmusch takes it a step further by allowing his character to explore two different mindsets - an old-school peaceful samurai and that of a modern-day hitman for the mob. The results are outstanding. 

The movie follows Ghost Dog (Whitaker) who is a hitman for an Italian mob in New Jersey, specifically answering to the boss Vargo and the underboss Louie, who saved his life. Ghost Dog now feels indebted to him, which of course is an element of being a samurai. In fact, Ghost Dog reads, believes, and lives on the words written in his Hagakure - a few small passages that teach the reader how to become a peaceful warrior. Somewhere down the road, Ghost Dog is sent on a hit, where he does not kill a girl in the room with his intended target, which leads the mafia to put a hit out on him out of fear of police involvement. The catch is that nobody really knows who Ghost Dog is since he and Louie have only communicated through carrier pigeons since he saved his young life all those years ago. Leading a solitary and quiet life, the only real friends Ghost Dog has come in the form of a French ice cream truck owner and a young girl he befriends who seems interested in the way of the samurai. 

Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai tells its story in a unique way that mixes some dark humor and a violent drama into one as the titular character himself must bring both aspects of his life - the peaceful samurai and the violent hit-man together in unity before the sun goes down. Whitaker perfectly portrays these two emotional worlds from dealing with mob guys to finding his pigeons massacred on the rooftop. The comedy takes place mostly with the Italian mob as they are more or fewer caricatures of themselves, speaking in vulgar sentences in a thick Jersey accent, complete with outrageous jumpsuits, along with a cringe-inducing scene where one of them tries to rap. Jarmusch wanted to merge these two cultures and genres where Ghost Dog would take down the over-the-top belief system in the mafia that romanticizes their brutal practices. At the same time, the ancient beliefs of the samurai are just as excessive, yet on the other end of the spectrum. It’s a fine line he walks, but it’s done perfectly here. 

With a stoic and brilliant performance by Whitaker, some remarkable camera work from Jarmusch, and an impressive soundtrack score by Wu-Tang Clan musician RZA, Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai is just as great, poignant, and weird as when it came out. 

 

Vital Stats - The Blu-ray

Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai stealthily movies its way to Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection with the spine number 1057. The disc and it’s 41-page booklet and Hagakure are packed into a hard, clear plastic case with artwork feature Ghost Dog himself. 

Video Review

Ranking:

Ghost Dog: The Way Of A Samurai comes to Blu-ray with a 1080p HD transfer in its original aspect ratio of 1:85:1 from the Criterion Collection. According to the Criterion booklet, this new digital transfer was created in 16-bit 4K resolution from the original 35mm camera negative where thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, and splices were manually removed and was supervised by Jarmusch himself. 

The colors in this new transfer look amazing with deep, vibrant greens in the trees and grass that cover areas of Jersey that mixes well with the run-down brick buildings and the greyish-blue sky above. The mafioso outfits are dynamic with their many whacky colors, along with the color green that seems to pop up from time to time on Ghost Dog himself and others around him. Red colors pop as well, whether it be blood from a gunshot, a red convertible, or dragon emblems on Ghost Dog’s black hoodie - it all looks wonderful.

The detail is vivid as well, even in darker sequences thanks to this new 4K transfer that allows for the lower-lit scenes to reveal facial features in closeups, individual hairs, and prop details nicely. Black levels are inky and rich without any crush or bleeding and the skin tones are always natural. There’s also a wonderful filmic look to the movie that always feels like a true and native samurai film from the old days that keeps the visual depth at an all-time high. Lastly, there are no video problems associated with this amazing transfer. 

Audio Review

Ranking:

This release comes with a lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio mix that sounds great but is never overly used or chaotic. In fact, this is quite a simple audio track that fits the story and tone of the film, that of a peaceful warrior. Sound effects of gunshots and vehicles driving by sound robust, but never intense or murderous like they would in a giant blockbuster film.

They are nuanced and well-balanced, and maybe even a tiny bit on the softer side, but it has a greater impact in the long run here. Ambient noises of people talking on the street, an ice cream truck’s musical notes, and pigeons chirping all sound wonderful. There is a fantastic low end of bass as well when the RZA’s musical score kicks in that have a very good rumble to it. The dialogue is always clean and clear, and free of any audio issues to speak of. 

Special Features

Ranking:

There are around 190 minutes of bonus features included here, with new and old extras that come with interviews with the cast and crew, deleted scenes, and an isolated score track. 

  • Q&A With Jim Jarmusch (85 Mins.) - Made specifically for this release, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch answers a ton of great questions from fans about the film, which is very informative, funny, and great to listen to, however, there is no video with this extra, rather only audio, which is a shame. 
  • Forest Whitaker, Isaach De Banole, and Michael B. Gillespie (HD, 30 Mins.) - Also made for this release, these actors by way of video conference all recall their time making the film, working with Jim, and dive into their characters. 
  • Casting With Ellen Lewis (HD, 16 Mins.) - A brand new interview here focuses on the casting director and her relationship with the actors and Jim.
  • Shift Shi Yan Ming (HD, 6 Mins.) - An all too short interview with the founder of the USA Shaolin Temple is included here. 
  • Archival Interview (HD, 16 Mins.) - Jim, Forest, and RZA all talk about how Ghost Dog became a film, its inspirations, and more from this 1999 interview.
  • The Odyssey: A Journey Into The Life Of A Samurai (HD, 22 Mins.) - Yet another vintage interview from the year 2000 with Jim, Forest, and RZA as they discuss making the film. 
  • Flying Birds: The Music Of Ghost Dog (HD, 15 Mins.) - RZA talks about the music he created for the movie. Must-see.
  • Deleted Scenes And Outtakes (HD, 6 Mins.) - A couple of deleted scenes and extended sequences are included here. 
  • Isolated Score  - Watch the film with a score-only audio track.
  • Trailer (HD, 2 Mins.) - Trailer for the film. 
  • Criterion Booklet - A fully illustrated 41-page booklet that features cast and crew information, tech specs of the Blu-ray, and an essay by Greg Tate about the film is included, along with a miniature Hagakure from the film. 

Final Thoughts

Ghost Dog: The Way Of The  Samurai is still a wonderfully brilliant film some two decades later. It’s still strange, funny, and great on all levels with a pitch-perfect performance from Forest Whitaker. Plus it’s always a rare hilarious sight when a vicious Italian mobster raps along to a song on the radio while powdering his private parts - something that does happen in this film. Criterion has knocked it out of the park with this release, providing some excellent video and audio presentations, along with some brand new and vintage bonus features. Highly Recommended.