Targeting here and now

Review: Pop culture references are peppered throughout Jim Jarmusch's `Ghost Dog,' which wittily depicts the world of a nearly invisible assassin.

March 17, 2000|By SUN FILM CRITIC

"Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" has all the earmarks of another John Woo rip-off, with a little "Sopranos" thrown in for good measure.

But with the lumberingly graceful Forest Whitaker as a mob hit man trained in the Japanese warrior tradition, "Ghost Dog" instead takes viewers on a trance-like journey through a transforming world, as old ways merge, disappear and reluctantly give way to the new.

In a city with no name, Ghost Dog inhabits the margins, living in a shack on top of a building, carefully tending his carrier pigeons and reading the "Hagakure" -- the Book of the Samurai. Except when he is recognized by one of the neighborhood gangs, who treat him with deep respect, he moves invisibly through the world.

Ghost Dog, a stealthy master marksman, works solely for Louie (John Tormey), a low-level mobster who saved Ghost Dog's life several years before. When Louie's boss Ray (Henry Silva) asks him to assign Ghost Dog to murder the man who is sleeping with his daughter, Ghost Dog dutifully and bloodlessly carries out the contract. But there is a complication, which will ultimately put Ghost Dog's life in danger.

Jim Jarmusch, the director of "Stranger Than Paradise," "Down By Law," "Mystery Train" and, most recently, "Dead Man," has always delighted in the collision of cultures and languages, and "Ghost Dog" is no exception. In this delightedly polyglot production, Ghost Dog carries on absurd but utterly expressive conversations with an African vendor who speaks only French. One of Louie's henchmen, Sonny Valerio (a hilarious Cliff Gorman) hums Public Enemy rap tunes as he brushes his teeth.

"Ghost Dog" is infused with the absurdist, deadpan humor that has held Jarmusch in such good stead. One of the most amusingly effective scenes has the camera panning across a group of mobsters making fun of gangstas and their adopted monikers, a sequence that ends on an eloquently piquant punch line.

A hypnotic score by the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA and cinematographer Robby Muller's rich palette and graceful camera work help "Ghost Dog" move with a meditative grace, taking the audience deeper and deeper into Ghost Dog's studied focus. Whitaker is perfectly cast in a role that calls for bear-like grace and the sort of dynamism that can still be discerned beneath layers of sad, knowing stillness.

More than a portrait of a lone, romantic killer, "Ghost Dog" is a portrait of a changing, transcultural society, in which people who don't speak the same language still find ways to communicate and where ancient traditions and high-tech rituals vie for ascendancy in a new order populated by rastas, gangstas and other "others."

Clearly on their way out, the mobsters of Jarmusch's world are forced to use the back room of a Chinese restaurant for their social club, and all their houses are for sale. (According to their license plates, the denizens of Jarmusch's world live in places dubbed "The Highway State" and "The Industrial State.")

Along with dry wit, Jarmusch's renderings of the superannuated wise guys are infused with a melancholy sympathy: This is a movie in which a hit man is as likely to use his rifle sights for bird-watching as for sizing up a target.

Full of pop cultural references -- from Betty Boop and Felix the Cat to "Rashomon" and Chow Yun-Fat -- "Ghost Dog" is very much a movie of its era, indeed, of its very moment. Bristling with the inflammatory energy of outsiders brushing up against each other, Jarmusch's movie also exerts a soothing undertow, as if to suggest that change is inexorable and the smart money is on going with the flow.

Jarmusch has always been hip, but here he tempers his voracious appetite for what's happening now with a serene wisdom, and the result is a thoroughly absorbing, even transfixing, journey to a future that may already be upon us.

`Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai'

Starring Forest Whitaker

Directed by Jim Jarmusch

Rated R (strong violence and language)

Running time 116 minutes

Released by Artisan Entertainment

Sun score ****

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