Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)

Jim Jarmusch has made it his life’s work to chronicle cultural dislocation. His films are a dizzying mix of languages and eras, subcultures and styles. 1984’s Stranger Than Paradise – still his best film – set the pattern for all his later work. It’s a severe shaggy dog story, its every shot followed by a moment of black and a mournful string quartet underscoring the jokes. You can’t quite tell when the film takes place: the pork pie hats, argyle sweaters and bemused disaffection would pass for hip in ’54 or ’94. The film plays like a fever dream of The Honeymooners, with a Hungarian immigrant standing in for Alice Kramden and the very stasis of the situations – minutes go by with nothing whatsoever happening – generating the biggest laughs.

Each subsequent film has followed the same rough outline: Jarmusch lovingly details a marginal subculture (New Orleans prison, Elvis-obsessed Memphis), then introduces a foreigner. His films thrive on difference and the hostility it generates, all while manifesting enormous affection for his characters.

If Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, isn’t among Jarmusch’s best work, it’s far better than Dead Man, his last fiction film. That airless, mannered film looked like a dead end, where the filmmaker’s affectations and conceits had finally turned in on themselves. For all its formal beauty – Robby M´┐Żller’s black and white photography was breathtaking – it was a maddeningly inert, humorless film.

Ghost Dog is both a return to form and a heartening attempt to move beyond Jarmusch’s increasingly restrictive formal style. Forest Whitaker plays Ghost Dog, a samurai-obsessed hitman who has pledged himself to a single master, small-time mafioso Louie (John Tormey). He has one friend – a Haitian immigrant who speaks no English – and can be reached only via carrier pigeon. Hired by Louie to kill a rogue member of his own Vargo crime family, Ghost Dog’s successful hit finds him pursued by the entire clan.

Jarmusch thanks both Jean-Pierre Melville and Akira Kurosawa in the closing credits, and those names give a sense of what he’s up to here. Ghost Dog attempts to mix two separate traditions, the urban crime film (as reinvented by renegade French stylists like Melville and Godard) and the samurai film. When it succeeds, it’s a fast, nervy genre film that’s as funny as Kurosawa’s glorious black comedy Sanjuro. At its worst – primarily its final moments – it adds a thin veneer of hokey mysticism to a pastiche of gangster cliches.

The film replaces Jarmusch’s signature long takes and silent stretches with fast, edgy cutting and an abrasive hip-hop soundtrack by The RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan. The style suggests a whimsical fusion of Scorsese’s Mean Streets and recent Hong Kong action movies, mixing the former’s gritty, naturalistic lighting and grainy color with the latter’s languorous dissolves, layered superimpositions and slow motion sequences. It’s an unexpected fusion that couldn’t fit the story more perfectly.

That story is so arch and willful, however, that it could easily have lapsed into the quirky insularity of Dead Man. Forest Whitaker prevents this, grounding the story with his perfect calm. His shambling, bearish gait and sleepy eyes are in constant tension with the liquid grace of his movements in the action scenes. It’s hard to believe that a man this big can move so well. His gentle bearing keeps us off guard, always somewhat surprised by his violence. He dominates the film, and keeps its silliest pretensions believable.

The film’s best scene, however, is one of the few without Whitaker. Louie sits at a table in the backroom of a grungy Chinese restaurant with the heads of the Vargo crime family and tries to explain his relationship to Ghost Dog. The improbabilities mount – carrier pigeons and samurais lead with perfect non sequitur logic to Indian names and rappers – and the scene gets loopier and loopier, ending finally with a punch line so unexpected and delightful that you spend the next few minutes trying to piece together how the scene could have possibly got there.

There’s something inspiring about Jarmusch working with such dogged persistence for all these years on his happily marginal films. His contemporaries and successors haven’t fared as well. Whether, like Jonathan Demme, they parlayed their early successes into bland studio careers or, like Hal Hartley, they drove their small bag of tricks into the ground, they all seem to run dry after a few films. Ghost Dog is hardly Jarmusch at his most inspired, but it does manage to extend his stylistic range while remaining a film that could have been made by no one else. There’s every reason to expect another odd, fitfully brilliant film next year.

Gary Mairs