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Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai   B+

Artisan Entertainment

Year Released: 1999 (USA: 2000)
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Cast: Forest Whitaker, John Tormey, Cliff Gorman, Henry Silva, Isaach De Bankole, Tricia Vessey, Victor Argo, Gene Ruffini, Richard Portnow, Camille Winbush.

Review by Rob Vaux

What is Ghost Dog about?

It's about this kick-ass hitman who gets betrayed by his employers, sending him on a bloody rampage of... No, no, that's not it. Let me start again.

It's an earnest meditation about the fluid nature of culture, and how those who adhere to their societal norms often find themselves...nah, too intellectual.

It's an offbeat comedy about the isolation of the modern age and the wacky mayhem that ensues when... Nope. That won't work either.

Jeez, what the heck is Ghost Dog about?

As near as I can tell, it's about all of the above and more -- a quirky mix of gangster flick, social commentary, and black comedy that melds them all into a wonderful whole. It's about a group of characters who live out of step with their times, and the ways they make peace with that. It's about social misconceptions and the human bonds which ultimately transcend them. And yes, it's about a kick-ass hitman taking on the thugs stupid enough to double-cross him.

Forest Whitaker plays the title character, a strange assassin who adheres to the ancient samurai code of bushido. He works for the Mafia, carrying out contract killings at the behest of a low-level gangster who once saved his life. By rescuing him, the man has unwittingly become his daimyo, or honored lord; serving him gives Ghost Dog the chance to fully embody the samurai code. Then, after a string of perfect hits, something goes wrong. He shoots a made man, while leaving a lone witness alive. Rather than risk a war, the mob decides to hunt him down...and the real bloodshed begins.

This synopsis belies the movie's complexity: it's not an action film, although it portrays a very violent world. Director Jim Jarmusch concerns himself more with sociology than gunfights, using an action framework to hang a host of thematic questions upon. He presents a combination of living, dead, and dying cultures to draw fascinating connections between his characters. Ghost Dog adheres to an extinct code, but he also lives in the modern world, embracing the inner-city street life surrounding his rooftop abode. In contrast, his Mafia foes live ensconced in their hermetic hideouts, watching cartoons and trying to convince themselves that the world hasn't passed them by. With practiced discipline, Jarmusch shows us how these wildly differing points of view interact and what happens when their flawed understanding gives way to open conflict.

Is it pretentious? At times. But it's also wildly compelling and holds your interest with deceptive ease. The script contains some wonderful dialogue while never losing track of the main themes. There are some terrific action scenes, but they never overwhelm the characters. Jarmusch isn't afraid to laugh at his material either: Ghost Dog has some truly funny moments without derailing the essential seriousness of the plot. At the center of it all is Whitaker, whose sleepy-eyed, yet eerily confident performance gives the film a rock-solid foundation. You can see how strongly Ghost Dog believes in his outdated code, and the strength it gives him to face his enemies. Yet his quiet conversations hold as much power as his gunplay, and you find yourself equally interested in both. Without Whitaker, Ghost Dog's deft balancing act would come crashing to the ground.

It really is difficult to pin this film down, which may be one of the reasons why it works so well. Smart, engaging, and weirdly cool, Ghost Dog defies easy pigeonholing in favor of a complexity all its own. There aren't a lot of films out there that could take on so much and pull it all off with such aplomb. Whatever you may be looking for, this one has it. In spades.

Review published 03.24.2000.

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