The Samurai Way
Ghost Dog's code of disciplined cool: Jarmusch goes genre-bending
By Patrick Reed

Ever since Manhattan's Jim Jarmusch first gained international recognition at Cannes with Stranger Than Paradise (1984), the white-haired iconoclast has managed to keep his subsequent output at arm's length from the profit-hungry movie mainstream.

Whether following an unlikely trio of escaped convicts through bayou country in Down By Law (1986), delving into the complex allure of Elvis Presley in Mystery Train (1989), documenting the experiences of five taxicabs around the globe during Night on Earth (1991), or filtering the Western genre through a skewed prism of William Blake's poetry and peyote in Dead Man (1995), Jarmusch has been content to casually explore the possibilities of what he can uncover and illuminate about this endlessly unpredictable planet through his movies.

Such an anti-commercial discipline has helped to mark Jarmusch as an avatar of independent film over the years, giving him plenty of artistic freedom and a strong cult following. In each of his five feature-length films, narrative structures are consistently toyed with, American assumptions about everyday life and meaning are routinely challenged, fragments of cultural residue from all directions mingle in interesting ways, and the overall pace is leisurely, even lethargic. Throughout his career, Jarmusch has also resisted the impulse to do more than observe the cosmic strangeness of life; any hints of Jarmusch's own concerns or beliefs about the human condition are, by design it seems, vague and ephemeral.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is the writer/director's first wide release in nearly five years, and in this film Jarmusch applies his trademark inventiveness and cultural reflexivity to a story that has contemporary significance. Ghost Dog's story concerns the betrayal of the title character (Forest Whitaker), a large African-American hitman who works on contract for a mid-level Mafia capo named Louie (John Tormey). Living alone on a Jersey City rooftop with his pigeons, Ghost Dog has no apparent value to the world-at-large; he's virtually invisible. Therefore, Ghost Dog creates his own self-worth: he envisions himself as a modern samurai, one who spends each day reading the 16th-century tome Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai and eating ice cream in the park with his only friend, Haitian vendor Raymond (Isaach De Bankolé) and a bookish schoolgirl named Pearline (Camille Winbush). By night, he roams nomadically throughout the city in stolen luxury sports cars while grooving to gangsta rap.

Years ago, Louie saved Ghost Dog's life, and thus became his "master," conducting business with the cornrow-wearing, clad-in-black loner by carrier pigeon. When Louie's bosses misinform him about a planned hit within the family, Ghost Dog is seen whacking a cartoon-watching wiseguy by the Don's Rashomon-reading daughter (Tricia Vessey), and Louie must go along with the family's plan to get rid of his obedient retainer.

The bulk of the movie concerns Ghost Dog's intention to preserve his samurai code as he evades the mob's ridiculously inept attempts to kill him off. To Louie's superiors, who are watching their antiquated crime empire slowly rot away, Ghost Dog is sub-human, along with all other minorities (even if the family underboss worships Flava Flav). The Italian attitude toward blacks is consistent with movie portrayals of the Mafia all the way from The Godfather (1972) to HBO's popular The Sopranos. On the other hand, Ghost Dog conducts his ascetic criminal lifestyle with a brooding intensity reminiscent of classic Toshiro Mifune samurai roles in Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961). Ghost Dog's plot therefore enables the conventions of several well-established film genres to collide against each other throughout the movie.

This extends upon Jarmusch's deconstruction of the Western in Dead Man, but in Ghost Dog the mishmash of cultural references and methodical plot development combine to form a more discernible, and unsettling, point of view. In his own matter-of-fact manner, Jarmusch illustrates the malignant attraction violence holds over much of Western culture, and the resulting toll it inevitably extracts. By intertwining Ghost Dog's recitation of excerpts from the Hagakure with a series of violent acts throughout the film, which run the gamut from "Itchy and Scratchy"-level comedy to truly senseless, arbitrary shootings, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai suggests without moralizing that humans' urge to destroy one another can invade and shatter even the most honorable and disciplined of social contracts.

Wu-Tang Clan guru RZA's insistent hip-hop score situates all of the film's disparate meditations on violence within a cutting-edge context (working well with cinematographer Robby Müller's images). And finally, Whitaker's somber, revelatory performance as Ghost Dog also helps to give this latest Jarmusch exploration an undercurrent of urgency that, for all of their creativity and insight into the strangeness of life, his previous films have lacked.