Ghost Dog:
The Way of the Samurai

directed by Jim Jarmusch
(Artisan, 1999)

You may look at a plot summary for Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai and figure it's just a shoot-'em-up gangsta flick with a little Asian sensibility and some martial arts thrown in to widen the audience. But an audience looking for that action movie will be sorely disappointed.

It helps to know this is a movie by Jim Jarmusch, a man gifted at turning small moments into big impact. It helps to know there are flashes of other brilliant films here, from Jarmusch's own Dead Man to High Noon. And it helps to know Ghost Dog is played by Forest Whitaker, who can play a resolute enigma and still make you care about the character.

The plot is straightforward, and an interesting concept: Ghost Dog is an urban samurai, a man who was saved when he was younger by Louie, a low-level mafioso. A few years later, Ghost Dog reappears before the gangster and, in accordance with his samurai code, announces he is in Louie's debt. And Louie, gangster that he is, turns Ghost Dog into his own efficient, uncatchable hitman. No one knows his "real" name, or where he lives. He communicates with Louie by carrier pigeon-delivered messages. His only "outside" conversations are with the French-speaking Haitian ice-cream vendor Raymond (a wonderful Isaach De Baukole) and a little girl, Pearline (Camille Winbush), whom he meets in the park and who may or may not become his acolyte.

When Ghost Dog is betrayed by the larger mafia clan, he must find a way to defend himself while still standing by his warrior code of honor. Here's where the movie differs, though, from those Untouchables flicks of gangster and law enforcement bravado. Ghost Dog is a film of deliberate pacing, with a natural rhythm pulsed along wonderfully by a jazzy hip-hop soundtrack by The RZA, a Wu-Tang Clan founder. It is more a movie about men living by the rules, as those rules unravel around them, than about bloodshed. There are no extraneous characters, no unnessary moves. Almost every action is explained by a quote from Hagakure, which Ghost Dog is studying as the film opens.

And there is a natural order to Ghost Dog which surrounds nearly everything Jarmusch is doing. Each Hagakure passage, a lesson on being a proper samurai, is narrated by the character to whom it applies. When the gangsters are onscreen, they're always watching a cartoon that relates to the scene unfolding. When gangster Louie is in hot water with The Boss, he waits on the street corner, smoking, outside a store with fish tanks in the windows: Already sleeping with the fishes. And when Ghost Dog's pigeons are airborne, their wings flap in time to the mesmerizing soundtrack. It's a movie of detailing and deliberation, of Rashomon homages -- and a surprising amount of humor. "They whacked him -- whaddya gonna do?" asks a mafia victim's uncle, rhetorically. Another elderly mafia lieutenant has a thing for rapping along with his Flava Flav CDs. And, when the mob's grilling Louie about his hitman, sitting under the stereotypical bare lightbulb, they discuss their conviction that the "Ghost Dog" nom de guerre, like rappers' stage names and the street nicknames of black men they know, is just a black gangster thing. And then a mafioso speaks: "Go out. Get Sammy the Snake, Joe Eggs and Big Angie. Get 'em in here."

The whole thing was obviously not made with a blockbuster budget, and there are some moments when even Jarmusch's gift can't pull a cover over technical weaknesses. But what he has done here far, far overrides those moments.

[ by Jen Kopf ]

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