Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch

The gun is a coward's weapon, always has been, always will be. Likening it to the sword is like equating rape with romance. In his sleek, reverberant new feature, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Jim Jarmusch does indeed mix his murderous metaphors, but, because he's hardly a Hollywood poster child (his last feature outing, the Neil Young rockumentary Year of the Horse, provides ample evidence to the contrary), this philosophical aberration may be set aside. Instruments of combat have changed a bit over the centuries, and the film isn't reluctant to mirror for us a distinctly gun-crazy culture. By stirring into contemporary America the essence of Tsunetomo Yamamoto's 18th-century treatise Hagakure, The Book of the Samurai, Jarmusch projects the samurai swordsman onto the gangland gunman, seeking to fuse the two under a code of honor. Like Luc Besson's Léon (retitled The Professional for its American release), which it resembles in spirit and general outline, Ghost Dog is concerned with illustrating the dignity and humanity of a contract killer, regardless of his tools.

Forest Whitaker plays the eponymous hitman, graceful and elegant in his formless sweatshirt, stealing a Lexus through the use of high-tech gadgetry. Car CD players seem to have been invented exclusively for Ghost Dog as he deftly slides in a disc and meditates upon the unforgiving streets to the churning rhythms of Wu-Tang Clan's the RZA (pronounced, for the record, "Rizzah"). He stealthily strides in on Handsome Frank (Richard Portnow) to complete his assignment ("What the fuck? You want my Rolex?"), only to discover that Frank is hosting Louise Vargo (Tricia Vessey), a spooky girl in a crimson dress who calmly offers Ghost Dog her paperback copy of Rashomon. "Did my father send you here to do this?" she asks him.

That's the problem: Louise's father happens to be Ray Vargo (Henry Silva), a veteran crime lord whose empire has fallen on hard times. Vargo; his slick, rap-savvy right-hand man, Sonny Valerio (Cliff Gorman); and crotchety Old Consigliere (Gene Ruffini) take a meeting with Louie (John Tormey), who contracted Ghost Dog for the hit. The venue for their quorum is the cramped backroom of a Chinese restaurant, marking one of the movie's funniest and most uncomfortable scenes. Because Louise has seen Ghost Dog in action, stone-faced Vargo wants the assassin dead, but Louie is hard-pressed to explain the complexities of his arrangement with Ghost Dog. Some of their relationship spurts forth as he is grilled and some is revealed gradually throughout the movie, but the gist is that Ghost Dog has pledged his life and skills to his daimyo, communicating with Louie only by carrier pigeon, accepting payment only on the first day of autumn.

Forest Whitaker and the RZA in Ghost Dog
Forest Whitaker and the RZA in Ghost Dog

Naturally, this business of pacts and pigeons makes little sense to the other mobsters, who simply want Ghost Dog dead -- or else, they promise, Louie will be pushing up the daisies next to Frank. Complicating matters, Ghost Dog is bound to protect his master and is virtually invisible, blending in on the streets or disappearing to his phantom lair atop an abandoned building. On this unlikely battlefield, old school pursues new school, but new school, informed by very old school, is prepared to launch a counterstrike.

This infusion of warrior philosophy is the gas in Ghost Dog's tank, and Jarmusch pumps it for maximum octane throughout. Illustrative excerpts from Hagakure pop up on the screen to be read by Whitaker, setting the tone for each confrontation, and The Art of War also figures into the action. On a purely visual level, Jarmusch and exceptional cinematographer Robby Müller (Down by Law, Repo Man, The Tango Lesson) reteam to create a brilliantly gritty samurai street chic, channeled through Whitaker's every calculated move and masterful expression. Ghost Dog is as convincing in his rooftop maneuvers with his sword as he is twirling his guns into his coat after use. It's gimmicky and a little depressing, glorifying these killing machines, but no less effective. When a backwoods cracker insults him late in the movie, saying, "this ain't no ancient culture," Ghost Dog's steady resolve leaves no room for doubt: Sometimes it is.

Delivered entirely straight, this approach would have yielded little more than an adolescent revenge movie, dressing up the basic theme of, say, The Crow (blood as payment for innocence stolen ... hmm ... that's sort of Hamlet, too, isn't it?) with the reverence and mystique of the old Kung Fu series. But this is a Jarmusch film, and the director ladles on winking ironies and surprise chuckles to leaven the morbid proceedings. (Hint: Watch the license plates.) He flirts with the ugly cool factor of big, phallic silencers and contract killing, but, as surely as the RZA is evolving the rooster strut of rap, he's revising the form of street-smartness. By using classic cartoons to comment on the action, he accentuates the ludicrousness of the hits, especially when Ghost Dog stalks Valerio at home, where the aging gangster cops a Flava Flav in his bathroom. The silliness stops just short of cutting in old footage of John Belushi in his topknot and robe.

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