In his sleek, reverberant new feature Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Jim Jarmusch does indeed mix his murderous metaphors, but, as 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 hit man, graceful and elegant in his formless sweat shirt, stealing a Lexus via 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, as Louise's father happens to be Ray Vargo (Henry Silva), a veteran crime lord whose empire has fallen upon 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 back room 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, 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.
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 ducking out in 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 up 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 the 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, citing that "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.
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 world view 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) felt like a long-neglected bridge being reconstructed. So too, does Ghost Dog's friendship with ice cream man Raymond (Isaach 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.