Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch

Unctuous Gorman, crass Ruffini and the venerable monument that is Silva are all darkly amusing in their astutely caricatured roles, and Tormey's strained expression is priceless, but these characters also represent but one side of Ghost Dog's life, the line of duty. On the human end of the spectrum, we encounter an almost shocking display of warmth. Not only is Ghost Dog respected by his peers (including a fellow samurai, played by the RZA), he is admired by a girl named Pearline (Camille Winbush), with whom he shares a fondness for literature. When she pulls a cheap paperback copy of The Wind in the Willows out of her bag, his sleepy eyes light up. "Toad Hall and all that stuff," he coos. "Man, it was great." When he passes on his legacy to the girl (much as Jean Reno did to Natalie Portman in Léon), it is with the delicacy of a kindly big brother. This is why Jarmusch can be so captivating; he boasts an uncanny ability to zero in on humanity under utterly inhumane circumstances. For my money, the director was still finding his feet in his 1980s efforts, despite the delight of seeing Tom Waits and the sorely missed Jalacy "Screamin' Jay" Hawkins prancing through his twitchy reveries. With Dead Man in 1995, however, he achieved a rare brilliance, simultaneously crystallizing his unique worldview and crafting one of the decade's most vital films. The relationship between Johnny Depp's somber pioneer William Blake and his lively and frank native sidekick Nobody (Gary Farmer, who reappears here for a cameo) seemed like a long-neglected bridge being reconstructed. So, too, does Ghost Dog's friendship with ice-cream man Raymond (Isaac de Bankolé, who drove a Parisian cab in Night on Earth) instill a dose of hope into a universe of chaos. The men are unable to speak one another's languages, but their instinctive communication is strong. As in Dead Man, we glimpse two friends on a journey that is guaranteed to end, but where Dead Man offered a profoundly haunting sense of closure, Ghost Dog becomes hypnotic, suggesting the cyclical nature of all things. This spirit raises the violent entertainment to a higher plane. As for the mean streets' evolving into a warrior aristocracy, we'll have to wait and see.

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

Opens March 24 at the Tivoli.

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