This is likely to be one of those posts that very few people read. Why? Because even Ekalavya can count on the fingers of one hand, the number of people I know who have heard of this beautiful, sad, quirky movie about a hired assassin who sees himself as a samurai and lives by their code.
Before Forest Whitaker won the academy award for his mesmerizing portrayal of Idi Amin (The Last King of Scotland), his career was mostly a study of gentle giants. Ghost Dog is one such character, except for the part where he kills people at the behest of a Mafia chieftain. He’s a strange bird, this Ghost Dog. He works as a hit man because the mobster saved his life once and his code dictates that he obey his orders. He insists on getting paid only once a year, on the first day of Autumn. His boss doesn’t understand anything he says about his code. He has no friends except for an ice cream stand owner who doesn’t speak the same language. And in the end, he is killed by his employer. Do you get the picture? This is the sort of movie that you’ll either absolutely want to see or absolutely not want to see.
It might be easy to classify this movie as a tragedy. But while it had a sad quality to it, it wasn’t actually tragic. For me, tragedy depends not on what happened but on what could have happened. I find Othello tragic because I can imagine a story where he was not consumed by his own insecurities. Ghost Dog, on the other hand, has made his peace with the world around him by not really living in it. His life and death are governed by rules he understands and accepts. There is no rage against the dying of the light.
Strangely enough, the scene I remember best from this movie is an unexpectedly funny one. A bunch of mobsters (including Ghost Dog’s employer) have just decided to wipe him out. It is at this point that they run into a minor technical problem: none of them know where he lives. Their only contact is through the pigeons he sends. The conversation at this point is as follows:
Sonny: What the fuck is his name?
Louie: Ghost Dog.
Louie: Ghost Dog.
Sonny: Ghost Dog?
Joe: He said Ghost Dog.
Louie: Yeah. He calls himself Ghost Dog. I don’t know, a lot of these black guys today, these gangster-type guys, they make up names like that.
Ray: Is that true?
Sonny: Sure. He means like the rappers, you know, All the rappers, they got names like that: Snoop Doggy Dogg, Ice Cube, Q-Tip, Method Man. My favorite was always Flavor Flav from Public Enemy. You got the funky fresh fly flavor.
[rhymes hip-hop verse]
Ray: I don’t know about that, but it makes me think of Indians. They got names like, uhh, Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, Running Bear, Black Elk.
[makes elk noise]
Sonny: Yeah. That kind of shit.
This is a serious, sober movie about a slightly loony sort of guy who has found his center by living his life by a centuries-old warrior code from another country. What is this Pulp Fiction-esque exchange doing in a movie like this? Strange as it might sound, it works. Watching a bunch of elderly middle-aged mobsters have this discussion is funny in itself. But on another level, it also serves to emphasize the protagonist’s alienation from the world he inhabits.