Way cool way of the samurai

BRUCE KIRKLAND

, Last Updated: 12:26 PM ET

Cultures do not usually clash in a Jim Jarmusch movie. They merge, fuse, energize and transform the people involved.

 So it is with Forest Whitaker's New Jersey hitman in Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai, Jarmusch's rambling yet slyly enjoyable shaggy dog story. The film mixes in Eastern philosophy, hip-hop music, cartoons, social satire and references from various movie genres. The sources vary from the Hollywood gangster flick to the Hong Kong martial-arts thriller to the classic western.

 Whitaker's title character Ghost Dog, whom he paints on the screen with a droll stillness that paradoxically makes him more vivid and intense, kills people for a living.

 But he does so with a highly evolved moral code and a frightening efficiency that he gleans daily from the pages of an 18th century book on Japanese warriors, Hagakure: The Book Of The Samurai. There are strict medieval methods to Ghost Dog's violent madness. He prays. He learns. He kills.

 Ghost Dog lives in a rooftop shack with a flock of rock doves. He works for the Italian-American Mafia, communicating with them by carrier pigeon.

 Ghost Dog does it because of a complex samurai-style obligation to a seedy little mobster (John Tormey) who works for a disorganized, dysfunctional and delightfully wonky Mafia family that is being evicted from their headquarters in a Chinese restaurant. On one of his jobs, through no fault of his own, things start to go really wrong. He prepares for confrontation. He is ready for death.

 In the middle of this mock-serious plot, Jarmusch throws in a gaggle of oddball characters, including a lineup of mobsters led by poker-faced Henry Silva. Not least among non-criminals is an ice cream salesman (Isaach de Bankole, the Paris taxi driver in Jarmusch's Night On Earth).

 Typically, for Jarmusch, the two are friends, but Whitaker speaks no French and Bankole no English. Yet (through subtitles), we discover they understand perfectly, by intuition.

 The movie absolutely rambles. It is perhaps too long for the weight of the story. Jarmusch underplays his whole movie just as Whitaker underplays his role. So everything is muted, which naturally is strange for a hitman movie.

 The pleasure, of course, is found in the accumulation of detail, of character, of singular moments that transcend story.

 To put us in the right mood, Jarmusch brought back his favourite cinematographer, German master Robby Mueller, who bathes the screen with saturated colours and unique camera views that turn a seedy, rundown area into an adventure palace. To complete the mood manipulation, Jarmusch hired The RZA, producer-founder of Wu-Tang Clan, to seduce us with a lyrical Afro-Asian soundtrack.

 Ghost Dog may not be an important film -- it is not even Jarmusch's own masterpiece -- but it is a distinct pleasure to behold it, to surrender to it and be charmed by it.

(This film is rated AA)


Videos

Photos