“Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” (dir. Jim Jarmusch, 1999)
The idea of Forest Whitaker playing a modern samurai hitman who communicates only by homing pigeon is a fundamentally delightful prospect, one made all the more satisfying by “Ghost Dog” writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s utter reverence for his title character, and Whitaker’s commitment to playing the New Jersey mafia assassin with all the pain and gravitas of someone at the center of an ancient Greek tragedy.
Never one to settle on a single tone or milieu, Jarmusch followed his 1995 acid western “Dead Man” with this modestly budgeted but equally ambitious film about a dead man of a different kind; as tends to happen with contract killers — such as the one Alain Delon played in Jean-Pierre Melville’s instructive “Le Samouraï” — poor Ghost Dog soon finds himself being targeted by the same men who retain his services. But Melville was hardly Jarmusch’s only source of inspiration for this fin de siècle pastiche, which also pays tribute to genre titans like Seijun Suzuki and John Sturges even when confronting Ghost Dog with the kind of Italian-American tough guys who might be more closely associated with Martin Scorsese or Dick Tracy.
Looking over its shoulder at a century of cinema at the same time as it boldly steps into the next, the aching coolness of “Ghost Dog” may have seemed silly if not for Robby Müller’s gloomy cinematography and RZA’s funky trip-hop score. But Jarmusch’s film and Whitaker’s character are both so beguiling for the strange poetry they find in these unexpected combinations of cultures, tones, and times, a poetry that allows this (very funny) film to maintain an unbending sense of self even as it trends towards the utter brutality of this world. No matter how bleak things get, Ghost Dog’s rigid system of belief allows him to maintain his dignity in the face of deadly circumstance. More than that, it serves as a metaphor for the world of independent cinema itself (a domain in which Jarmusch had already become an elder statesman), and a reaffirmation of its faith in the idiosyncratic and uncompromising artists who lend it their lives. —LL