Take Luc Besson's flawed thriller The Professional. Now remove its bombastic camerawork, emotional contrivance, and pedophilic lust. Add some Zen philosophy, oddball comedy, nifty gadgets, and moody hip-hop. Stir, let it cool, and voilà! you've got Jim Jarmusch's fascinating new film, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Like Fargo, Ghost Dog is a wholly original creation made up of borrowed parts. And even though the Coen Brothers' homespun murder mystery was more accessible to the mainstream, Jarmusch's innovative thriller will hopefully introduce many new viewers to one of the founding fathers of American independent cinema.
Like the hero of Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai, Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) is a solitary creature; a loner who quietly bides his time between assignments. Unlike Alain Delon's suave hitman, however, Whitaker's assassin leads the regimented life of a Japanese samurai; meditating, practicing kendo, and reading the Hagakure, a philosophical text that guided every detail of the ancient warriors' lives. In fact, he stops pouring over the book only to tend to the cages of carrier pigeons outside his rooftop apartment.
Besides being pets, the pigeons are Ghost Dog's only method of communication with his "master," a local low-level Mafioso named Louie (John Tormey). Louie saved Ghost Dog's life as a teen, and in return (and in classic samurai tradition), the hired killer has been the mobster's loyal "retainer" ever since, unquestioningly and efficiently murdering select targets for his self-appointed daimyo.
But when Ghost Dog whacks the boyfriend of Louie's boss' daughter on the secret orders of underboss Sonny (Cliff Gorman) the entire syndicate turns on him. Louie himself is given a choice: either take out this mysterious assassin, or face death. Dog, meanwhile, is facing an even more difficult dilemma, since his sworn duty as a loyal samurai dictates that he protect the very man charged with killing him.
Although some moments are predictable, Ghost Dog is far from your average action/thriller. Eschewing heavy-handed sight and sound cues, Jarmusch deconstructs the crime-movie genre with a stripped-down style that lies somewhere between '60s art-noir classics like Breathless and the Yakuza films of Takeshi Kitano. Moments of tranquility, as when Ghost Dog plays a chilled-out CD en route to each hit, give way to sudden violence, when the actual killings occur. Even then, Jarmusch tweaks convention: instead of cracking wise or giving melodramatic speeches, Ghost Dog's victims either flop over silently or stiffly complain as the life wisps out of them.
Throughout the film, Jarmusch shows Ghost Dog plying his trade with refreshing inventiveness, having the hit man make use of clever gadgets like a universal car-alarm beeper, and creative assassination techniques, as when he uses one victim's plumbing system to get a clear head shot. The director also tries to familiarize viewers with the Way of the Samurai itself, inserting quotes from the Hagakure in between crucial scenes. Though annoying at first, these lessons eventually act as meditative chapter-markers, feeling much like informative haiku poems. Indeed, after watching Ghost Dog ply the wisdom of each Zen-like lesson on-screen, one walks away from the theater with a basic understanding of what made a samurai tick.
Ghost Dog is also a Zen comedy, serving up Jarmusch's famous brand of offbeat humor in his usual low-key style. Sometimes it's obvious, as when Louie's boss Ray Vargo (played as a hilarious nut by Henry Silva) and his aged Italian lieutenants discuss the artistic merits of gangsta rap versus old school hip-hop. Other times it's more subtle, like the conversations Ghost Dog has with a neighborhood ice cream vendor (Night on Earth's Isaach de Bankolé) who doesn't speak a lick of English, yet understands him nonetheless.
It's hard to imagine anyone but Forest Whitaker playing Ghost Dog. His imposing size and deadly skill are certainly menacing, but his impassive, hang-dog expression radiates both kindness and sad nobility. The actor also must have studied many-a-Kurosawa film, as he has the mannerisms of a samurai down pat, right down to the weapon-twirling flourish after each kill. In particular, a scene where he enters a mob compound smiling and then springs into action is reminiscent of Toshiro Mifune's cocky approach to the climactic showdown in Yojimbo. Of the supporting cast, Tormey comes off as the most human character, torn between his affection for his long-time servant and his own duty as a Mafia footsoldier. Gorman also stands out as the sleazy Sonny, getting the biggest laughs of the film when he struts in front of the mirror, singing along to Public Enemy's "Cold Lampin' With Flavor."
Ghost Dog isn't for everyone. The trailer makes it seem like a remake of Black Caesar set to the hip-hop beats of the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA (which add invaluably to the film's gritty urban aesthetic). That's not even close. Just as he did in his anti-Western Dead Man, Jarmusch has recombined cinematic elements both classic and contemporary into a new, challenging creation. It's nice to see that in an era where "independent" films are swearing fealty to studios and Steven Soderbergh is holding court with Julia Roberts, there is at least one director who is taking risks, and remaining his own master.