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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
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 Müller'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
- Gary Mairs