An enigmatic killer, an iconic soundtrack: this is one of the coolest films of the 1990s and it is absolutely to be seen again at the cinema

Released in French cinemas in October 1999, after a passage through the Cannes Film Festival, “Ghost Dog” is back in cinemas in a restored version. The opportunity to (re)discover one of Jim Jarmusch’s best works in all its glory.

Ghost Dog lives above the world, among a flock of birds, in a cabin on the roof of an abandoned building. Guided by the words of an ancient samurai text, Ghost Dog is a professional killer who blends into the night and slips through the city unnoticed. When his moral code is betrayed by the dysfunction of a mafia family that occasionally employs him, he reacts strictly according to the Way of the Samurai.

On October 6, 1999, French spectators only had eyes for The Phantom Menace, episode I of the Star Wars saga, which was finally due to arrive in theaters a week later. For the result that we know. And it is ultimately not so much the Jedi Knights of George Lucas who seduce the critics as another swordsman: that of Ghost Dog – The Way of the Samurai.

Having passed through the Cannes Film Festival Competition a few months earlier, Jim Jarmusch’s eighth feature film left empty-handed, David Cronenberg’s jury preferring in particular L’Humanité by Bruno Dumont (three prizes), Rosetta by the Dardenne brothers (two trophies including the Palme d’Or) or Everything About My Mother by Pedro Almodovar.

Which, with more than two decades of hindsight, may seem strange. Because it is neither more nor less than one of the most emblematic films of the 90s. One of the coolest too, a title that it owes in particular to its soundtrack by RZA, rapper and founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan, who makes a cameo in the film.

Like Quentin Tarantino (who will have RZA participate in the Kill Bill soundtrack), Jim Jarmusch uses music as a source of inspiration to find a mood, an atmosphere, when he writes. While preparing Ghost Dog, he immersed himself in hip-hop and especially Wu-Tang Clan albums. Which is not necessarily a coincidence because, like the feature film, the group mixes several cultures, and took its name from the Hong Kong action film Shaolin and Wu Tang (Shaolin against Wu Tong in VF).

A mixture that we also find in Ghost Dog, with its African-American hitman who follows the code of honor of the samurai. So much so that it is difficult to put it in a box, its director describing it as “a gangster, samurai, hip-hop movie [et un] eastern western” in interview given in 2000.

Also influenced by Le Samouraï by Jean-Pierre Melville, The Mark of the Killer by Seijun Suzuki or the cinema of Akira Kurosawa (which gives it a point in common with Star Wars), and capable of inserting extracts from cartoons in the middle of action scenes, he draws his strength from this assembly, improbable on paper, fascinating on the screen.

A mixture that refers to the main character as much as to America itself: “a synthesis of many different cultures, and that is where beauty is born”said Jim Jarmusch on this subject, still in this interview given to Filmmaker in 2000. And this is how white, Italian, Amerindian and even Haitian characters gravitate around Ghost Dog, written specifically for Forest Whitaker to the point that the project would perhaps not have seen the light of day if he had refused it.

Rewarded at Cannes in 1988, for his performance in Bird, the actor holds here one of his best roles. And undoubtedly the most iconic, where his imposing physique and the coldness with which he strikes down his enemies contrasts with his sensitivity and his melancholy. A kind of solitary cowboy focused on philosophy, a distant cousin of the hero of Dead Man played by Johnny Depp a few years earlier.

The pact

Forest Whitaker

Fascinated by the charisma and calm of his character, Jim Jarmusch signs a wandering whose atmosphere is torn by a few peaks of violence. An unpredictable and unclassifiable jewel, which does not crumble under the weight of its influences, perfectly digested to give birth to the story of this modern-day samurai who is aging more than well.

And whose soundtrack, we come back to it, constitutes one of the undeniable strong points. Of those who can make a work cult and help it through the years with rare ease. Claiming that the spirit of the film was in him, RZA endeavored to make him a character in his own right, so much so that one sometimes wonders if he adapted to the rhythm instilled by Jim Jarmusch and Forest Whitaker, or the other way around.

A real beautiful synergy that you can now (re)discover at the cinema, in a restored version. The one that was released at the end of November in a 4K edition supervised by Jim Jarmusch, accompanied by a version of the hagakure, code of honor of the main character, and with the soundtrack as a bonus, as if to emphasize its importance a little more. A small masterpiece that can be appreciated as much with the eyes as with the ears.

We wish to give thanks to the writer of this write-up for this outstanding material

An enigmatic killer, an iconic soundtrack: this is one of the coolest films of the 1990s and it is absolutely to be seen again at the cinema