Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

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Friday March 17, 2000

     "Everything seems to be changing all around us."
     This sentiment is expressed more than once in "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai," and on this thematic level Jim Jarmusch's rueful, funny, deliciously off-kilter new film couldn't be clearer. You have no doubt what this movie is about when you walk out of the theater.
     But as for what the movie is about--you know, in the way your pal Mikey will mean when he asks about it--that's likely to give you trouble. There's no way to tell him that makes sense.
     There's this hit man, see, and his name is Ghost Dog. And he communicates with his boss by carrier pigeon.
     Chances are Mikey will stop you right there. What year and country is this set in? he'll want to know. For Mikey's information, the time is now, and the place is New York City. But this is only the first of this movie's wacky anachronisms.
     "Ghost Dog" is a further exploration of themes that Jarmusch handled in more solipsistic (and less entertaining) fashion in "Dead Man," his 1995 western starring Johnny Depp. Both movies are, in part, meditations on death and dying, spiritualism and ancient codes of conduct.
     (Jarmusch links the two movies by having characters in "Ghost Dog" equate African Americans with American Indians. And he includes a Cayuga Indian actor from "Dead Man" in a small role here to utter a more profane version of his "stupid white man" refrain from that film.)
     The filmmaker might be faulted for exchanging one brand of exoticism for another and for making a too-easy (and cliched) correlation between pre-modern societies and moral superiority. He does it so inventively, though (commingling ancient Japanese culture with black inner-city life and an antiquated Cosa Nostra moral code), that we're willing to take the ride.
     Cultures collide in "Ghost Dog," old ways of being fall before the advance of progress. Jarmusch shows the Mafia as it has never been seen--a collection of aging men in a changing neighborhood who can't pay the rent on their hangout and who waste their days engrossed in vintage cartoons on television.
     The movie is full of Jarmusch's trademark offbeat humor. Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker in a gracefully minimalistic performance) is best friends with an exuberant Haitian ice cream vendor who speaks only French. Neither can understand a word the other says and yet they converse anyway, somehow comprehending all.
     One of the nice things about this movie is the way it doesn't explain itself to you as it follows its unpredictable path. The watchful, bearlike Ghost Dog lives in a shack atop a tenement roof with his pigeons, and he's dedicated his life to the study and practice of the samurai code.
     We never learn how he went from getting beat up on the street eight years ago (in what may or may not have been a hate crime) to becoming this inscrutable hip-hop warrior. But he has pledged himself in zen-like fashion to Louie (John Tormey), the low-level Mafiosi who saved his life.
     Also, while there is indication that Ghost Dog communicates with animals--he's kind of a lord of the urban jungle--it never is explained how he manages to know all that he knows about the whereabouts and plans of the mobsters who decide early in the movie that he must die.
     People of honor in this movie live by their own moral codes and respect the codes of others. Ghost Dog carries around a book that he is always reading, the 18th century Japanese warrior text "Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai." Periodically, sayings from the book are superimposed on screen. The movie is full of other texts, as well--novels, rap songs, even cartoons--that reflect directly on what is happening on screen.
     The mobsters can't even absorb the wisdom of Betty Boop or Felix the Cat, the texts they consume daily. If they did, Ghost Dog wouldn't be able to catch them unawares. In one scene, for example, he spies (and kills) a hood who had been watching a cartoon character rain bullets on an enemy by firing a gun into a rain spout. Minutes later, Ghost Dog dispatches another gangster pretty much the same way.
     The movie contains a big, vengeful rampage scene that might remind viewers of Steven Soderbergh's film of last year, "The Limey." Soderbergh won high praise for his chop-and-dice technique in that movie even though it had been done a dozen times better by filmmakers from John Boorman to Alain Resnais. But what Jarmusch does here is wholly original. It's a nearly pitch-perfect melding of genres, influences and modes of expression--it's the first Mafia movie for the hip-hop age. Or maybe it's a samurai western spliced with rap and humor. (The movie is evocatively scored by the rapper The RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan.)
     Whatever you call it, it's so wonderfully eccentric that it cries out for a new way of discussing it. Gnomic epigrams, perhaps, scattered amid promiscuously allusive, scat-like prose. Or a hyperlinked dissertation on ancient warrior codes. (Yes, the new mode of movie review this film needs necessarily would come at you from cyberspace.)
     And from the speakers while you read it, some Earth, Wind and Fire, perhaps. "That's the Way of the World"? You know it. But only for those not hip enough for the RZA.
     Self-indulgent, you say? Perhaps. But as Ghost Dog tells Louie: "Everything seems to be changing all around us."
     Nothing makes sense anymore.


Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, 2000. R for strong violence and language. An Artisan Entertainment release. Director and screenplay Jim Jarmusch. Producers Jim Jarmusch, Richard Guay. Cinematographer Robby Muller. Production designer Ted Berner. Editor Jay Rabinowitz. Music the RZA. Costume designer John Dunn. Running Time: 1 hour, 56 minutes. Forest Whitaker as Ghost Dog. John Tormey as Louie. Sonny Valerio as Cliff Gorman. Frank Minucci as Big Angie. Richard Portnow as Handsome Frank. Tricia Vessey as Louise Vargo. Henry Silva as Ray Vargo.

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