Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
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.
The Criterion Collection brings Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog to Blu-ray, presenting the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on a dual-layer disc. The 1080p/24hz high-definition encode is sourced from a brand new 4K restoration, scanned from the 35mm original A/B camera negative.
With the Artisan DVD from 2000 being the only digital home media release available in North America the film was in dire need of an update, and thankfully Criterion’s Blu-ray mostly answers the call. In all it’s a far cleaner presentation, both in terms of source and digital presentation, looking more photographic when all is said and done. The image is clean and stable, free of marks and debris or any sort of damage, while rendering film grain cleanly enough. The film has a darker look but colours are still robust where the need to be (reds can really pop) and black levels are clean and rich without destroying shadow detail, needed for the film's many darker sequences.
The digital presentation has a couple of hiccups that stood out: the opening red-font credits look a little noisy around the edges while a couple of fade-ins and fade-outs can show some mild banding during the transition. Nothing of note stood out during the rest of the film.
Despite those couple of issues it is still a far cleaner image than what the Artisan DVD offered, looking far more photographic in the end.
The film receives a 5.1 surround soundtrack presented in DTS-HD MA (the Artisan DVD delivered the 5.1 soundtrack in Dolby Digital). Like Jarmusch’s other films there is more of a push on dialogue, which is focused to the fronts, the center primarily. Dialogue is clear with excellent depth and fidelity, no distortion or mumbling. The film is more “action-packed” in comparison to some of the director’s other films, but even the action scenes keep things focused the fronts, only spreading out to the rears where it makes sense. The surrounds and the lower-channel get more use when RZA’s score comes into play throughout the film, filling the environment and enveloping the viewer beautifully with an incredibly dynamic mix. Overall, it’s a very clean and very effective surround mix.
Criterion’s new edition ports most of the material over from the Artisan DVD while adding on some of their own material. Starting things off is another fan Q&A with the director, where Jarmusch answers questions fans wrote to him around this release. The questions, answered over the 84-minute audio-only recording, cover a number of details and areas around the film, touching on the film’s score, the film’s setting (which Jarmusch calls “generically urban”), Henry Silva, Gary Farmer, the importance of the “In a Grove” story (the basis for Kurosawa’s Rashomon), the film’s influences, and even little details like why the central character always sets the volume level on the radio to “21.” He also gets asked some bizarre questions (one writer asks why his own father loves this film so much) and shares some amusing little stories around filming, like how Matt Groening apparently stepped in personally to allow Jarmusch to use a clip from an episode of The Simpsons within his film (apparently Fox was being difficult). He also touches on some more personal, non-film specific things, like what type of music he is listening to during the COVID lockdown. As always the feature ends up being both insightful and surprisingly fun, and I love that Jarmusch is game to do them.
Criterion then gathers some new interviews for this release, most of them recorded over teleconferencing software due to the lockdown. First is an interview between actors Forest Whitaker and Isaach de Bankolé, and film scholar Michael B. Gillespie. The two actors recount how they were cast before reflecting on their characters in the film, also touching on how the film could be viewed today and how the film still appeals to new audiences. Bankolé also brings up his assassin character in Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control in relation to the main character in this film. It runs about 30-minutes.
Criterion also gets a great 15-minute audio interview with casting director Ellen Lewis. This one is rather fun, with Lewis talking about a number of the roles she cast for the film, explaining how she had to figure out the vibe of Jarmusch’s film and then find the right people to fit the feel, which was the case with everyone, from the more prominent characters to the small roles that end up being in the background. Interestingly, she had also cast Martin Scorsese’s Casino around that time, which explains a lot of the crossover cast between both films.
Criterion then manages to get a 5-minute in-person interview with Shifu Shi Yan Ming, founder of the USA Shaolin Temple. He goes over the Temple and its principals briefly before talking a bit about RZA, his own work on Ghost Dog and his little cameo in the film. Incredibly short but a worthwhile addition.
The rest of the features come mostly from archival material. Criterion does include the 21-minute “making-of” found on the Artisan DVD, The Odyssey: A Journey into the Life of a Samurai, which features interviews with RZA, Jarmusch, and Whitaker, and it offers a general look at the making of the film, from inspiration to final release. Much better are the two other features Criterion includes, which both look to be newly constructed by Criterion from unused footage filmed during the same sessions for that making-of. Archival Interviews, running 15-minutes, presents more from the three participants around the production and the story, Jarmusch even mentioning how the gangsters in the film were based on ones who grew up around. There’s also a video essay of sorts around the film’s music, featuring RZA from that interview footage talking about what he was going for with his compositions, even getting into the specifics on a number of them, which are sampled throughout the 20-minute piece. Criterion also includes an isolated score soundtrack for those that want to listen to the score on its own.
The disc then closes with the film’s trailer and the same deleted scenes and outtakes found on the DVD, which run about 5-minutes. Only one scene is truly a “deleted” one, which features the gangsters going over their dire financials. The rest all look like short clips or alternate takes. It also includes Cliff Gorman’s entire Flavor Flav cover.
In a nice touch Criterion also includes a tiny Hagakure fold-out, featuring a number of quotes (and made to replicate the cover of the book in the film), which I found placed inside the release's booklet, which features essays on the film by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Greg Tate, followed by a reprint of an interview with Jarmusch conducted by Tod Lippy. Scattered about are some wonderful photos from the filming.
Overall Criterion offers a far more satisfying and engagin set of supplements, Jarmusch's fan Q&A being the highlight.
Despite a couple of encoding issues the presentation of the film looks significantly better than what the old Artisan DVD offered, and it's worth an upgrade for that reason alone. The supplements are also all very good, offering a more engaging and insightful look into the film and its genre-mashing.