Tag Archives: hit man

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai – Review

9 Mar

Jim Jarmusch is quite possibly one of the most critically acclaimed film makers working in the industry today. Even with all of this critical feedback, his films rarely see the light of day in terms of the mainstream market, but Jarmusch never compromises his vision for something more accessible, and I respect that. While most of his films are very interesting an defy genre conventions, one that really stands out to me is Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, which was released in 1999. It’s a story that combines a mafia crime story with an urban drama that has elements of an Eastern samurai tale. It’s a very unique movie that has a lot of elements working together, but sometimes at the expense of other aspects that could have been explored more.

Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) is a mysterious hit man that lives by the code of the samurai, which was written in the Hagakure. Part of the code is to honor his boss, a mobster named Louie (John Tormey) who saved his life some years before this story takes place. Part of his honoring Louie is to perform contract hits without question. One of the hits is Handsome Frank (Richard Portnow), a made man who is in a relationship with mafia don Vargo’s (Henry Silva) daughter (Tricia Vessey). After successfully performing the hit with the daughter being unexpectedly present for it, Vargo puts a hit on Ghost Dog, much to the chagrin of Louie, who is forced to go along with it to some degree. Now, Ghost Dog is going to have to come out of seclusion, and in the traditional ways of the samurai, get his revenge on the mafia family that wants him dead.

So while this does have a pretty classic revenge story going on, the core of this movie is Ghost Dog. It’s more of a character study than anything else. There’s bursts of violence that happen, but it’s the downtime that sticks with me more. There’s a great scene in a park where Ghost Dog is talking to this little girl he just met about different kinds of books. This scene added a lot of humanity to Ghost Dog, a man who is essentially a murderer for hire. This kind of humanity makes him a very conflicted and complicated character whereas he can be gentle to most anyone he meets, but also kill you without batting an eye. This study of Ghost Dog makes for slow paced storytelling, but it works for this movie. What doesn’t really work is when the slow pace slows down to a halt. There’s a lot of scenes where Ghost Dog is just driving and listening to music, which is brilliantly composed by RZA. As great as the music is, these scenes go on way to long, and unless you’re 100% invested in everything in this movie, you’ll probably find yourself drifting from time to time.

What really makes Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai unique is the seamless genre blending. Like I said before, this film works as an urban drama and a crime thriller with sprinklings of Eastern philosophies and styles. I really love when movies defy all genre conventions, which is a major strength of Jim Jarmusch. The combination of RZA’s hip hop score with the imagery of Ghost Dog practicing with his katana on a rooftop in the middle of the city is just super cool, and when he’s comparing the philosophy of the samurai with the violent revenge he’s getting on the mafia also makes for a really cool blend. Now, the problem with having all this stuffed into one movie that isn’t even 2 hours means that some stuff is lost or pushed aside. Not a lot of Ghost Dog’s past is explored and a lot of side characters are just pushed away for long periods of time when a little bit of development would have went a long way. I know this story is more about Ghost Dog, but having certain characters stand out more would have made his actions have more consequence. It’s a small price to pay for fitting in all of the cool stuff that is prominent.

Ghost Dog is a really good example of the kind of writing that Jarmusch does and why it’s really a style all his own. There’s a lot of really cool bits in this movie that shouldn’t be under appreciated. There’s a Haitian character that doesn’t speak or understand a word of English, but he’s also Ghost Dog’s best friend even though they don’t understand each other. There’s also a gangster on Ghost Dog’s hit list that has a passion for Public Enemy, especially Flavor Flav. This whole movie is filled with these strange moments that make it feel surreal, but also down to earth since everyday life can be surreal. Jarmusch is as much a writer as he is a director, and it really shows in this movie.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is definitely a cool and well made movie, and it’s one that should be remembered for being something so unique. It’s a blending of so many different genres and themes and styles while also being an in depth character study. I just wish it was a little bit longer. There’s a lot of different characters and elements to the story that could have been explored a little bit more. Still, what does remain is a very cool story about a one of a kind character. It’s definitely worth a watch or three.

Final Grade: B

The Iceman – Review

15 Aug

Between the 1960s and the early 1980s, Richard Kuklinski murdered over 100 people as a hitman working for various mob families. Since his arrest in 1986, there has been a biography written about him and also an HBO documentary that features and interview with the Iceman, himself, from 1992. With all of this information already out there, and the fact that it was a huge media sensation, it seems only right to have a movie made after the guy. We got this movie in 2013 with Ariel Vroman’s The Iceman. While this movie does have a lot going for it, like the title performance, there’s a lot to this movie that just falls short which makes it not achieve a place a small gangster classic.

The-Iceman-Poster

Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) is a violent and unpredictable man, but he finds joy when he marries his girlfriend, Deborah (Winona Ryder). After losing his job dubbing bootleg porn for the mafia, he is hired by mob boss Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta) to act as an enforcer and hit man. This job forces Kuklinski to channel the rage and violence that he has hidden away from his family in order to get the job done, and it turns out that he’s very good at what he does. As the years go by and the amount of bodies becomes ridiculous, Richard finds himself in a position where he could either lose the way to provide for his family or team up with another mafia hit man, Robert Pronge (Chris Evans). Whatever his choice may be, the consequences could be big enough to tear his entire world apart.

I have to be honest here. I never heard of Richard Kuklinski before this movie, but his story really is an interesting one. With a career that spanned over two decades that was filled with violence and malice, you’d think it would be enough to make a great gangster film. Well, yeah it is, but the screenplay to The Iceman keeps it from ever really achieving that greatness. Since there is so much to work with, you’d think that this would be a pretty long movie, but it’s actually under two hours. How is that possible? There is way too much to cover for it to be that short. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of scenes that had the potential to be awesome and memorable, but is glazed over in a matter of seconds. The best part of this movie is a montage when it should have been stretched out to build character and create suspense. Oh well…

the-iceman

Despite the screenplay being less than spectacular, there’s still something that makes The Iceman well worth seeing. That is Michael Shannon’s fantastic performance. I’ve yet to see Michael Shannon give a less than perfect performance, be it as General Zod in Man of Steel, Nelson Van Alden in Boardwalk Empire, or even his small role as Petie in Cecil B. Demented. While some of the stuff he’s in may be awful (I’m looking at you Pearl Harbor and Jonah Hex), Shannon is never the weak link. In the role of Richard Kuklinski, he is both demonic and loving, good and evil. He is a family man and also a cold blooded killer. This is the kind of stuff that makes his character, and many other characters in cinema, so interesting and he pulls it off with such menace, it’s hard not to be terrified of him.

It’s also easy to get lost in the production design. I recently reviewed Parkland, and I talked about how well the designers pulled off making everything look and sound like 1963. I have the same thing to say about The Iceman, except that it showcases design from the 1960s through the 1980s. It really puts you into the scene, but unfortunately there is plenty to take you out of the scenes. I’ve heard complaints that a lot of the dialogue is stereotypical gangster lines, but that wasn’t the issue with me. Going back to what I said before, the pacing of this movie is too sporadic and things just seem to happen too quickly. The choppiness of the film’s plot is enough to take you out of what’s happening onscreen and start thinking about what could have been done to make the movie better.

What makes me so disappointed is that The Iceman had a lot of potential to be a great gangster film, but it only is a pretty good gangster film. Michael Shannon’s performance as Kuklinski is enough to make this movie worth watch, but there’s too much that’s lacking. While I didn’t expect it to have the size or scope of a movie by Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola, it would have been nice to see a little bit more work done with the screenplay. The bottom line is that The Iceman is a good movie, but is sorely lacking.