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Turning Japanese

Forest Whitaker brings an adopted honor code to the streets in Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog

The gun is a coward's weapon, always has been, always will be. Likening it to the sword is like equating rape to romance. However, for reasons that can be attributed only to collective insanity, Hollywood absolutely loves to romanticize the gun, serving as an adjunct advertising agency for the firearms industry. The celebrity glares down the barrel of the damned thing, and -- as surely as the poster for Erin Brockovich subtly seduces with social significance, T, A, and a cute baby (home run!) -- the primal instincts are shamelessly stroked. The mystery is why movies promising a cool guy running around shooting people would attract an audience in the first place. Then again, millions of people brush their teeth with carcinogenic saccharin, too. Woe for a senseless world.

In his sleek, reverberant new feature, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Jim Jarmusch does indeed mix his murderous metaphors, but, as he's hardly a Hollywood poster child (his last feature outing, the Neil Young rockumentary Year of the Horse, provides ample evidence), this philosophical aberration may be set aside. Instruments of combat have changed a bit over the centuries, and the film isn't reluctant to mirror for us a distinctly gun-crazy culture. By stirring into contemporary America the essence of Tsunetomo Yamamoto's 18th-century treatise Hagakure, The Book of the Samurai, Jarmusch projects the samurai swordsman onto the gangland gunman, seeking to fuse the two under a code of honor. Like Luc Besson's Léon (retitled The Professional for its American release), which it resembles in spirit and general outline, Ghost Dog is concerned with illustrating the dignity and humanity of a contract killer, regardless of his tools.

Forest Whitaker plays the eponymous hit man, graceful and elegant in his formless sweatshirt, stealing a Lexus with high-tech gadgetry. Car CD players seem to have been invented exclusively for Ghost Dog as he deftly slides in a disc and meditates upon the unforgiving streets to the churning rhythms of Wu-Tang Clan's The RZA (pronounced, for the record, "Rizzah"). He stealthily strides in on Handsome Frank (Richard Portnow) to complete his assignment ("What the fuck? You want my Rolex?"), only to discover that Frank is hosting Louise Vargo (Tricia Vessey), a spooky girl in a crimson dress who calmly offers Ghost Dog her paperback copy of Rashomon. "Did my father send you here to do this?" she asks him.

Shadow of death: Forest Whitaker stars as a professional killer who moves through the night without detection.
Abbot Genser
Shadow of death: Forest Whitaker stars as a professional killer who moves through the night without detection.

That's the problem, as Louise's father happens to be Ray Vargo (Henry Silva), a veteran crime lord whose empire has fallen upon hard times. Vargo, his slick, rap-savvy right-hand man Sonny Valerio (Cliff Gorman), and crotchety Old Consigliere (Gene Ruffini) take a meeting with Louie (John Tormey), who contracted Ghost Dog for the hit. The venue for their quorum is the cramped back room of a Chinese restaurant, marking one of the movie's funniest and most uncomfortable scenes. Since Louise has seen Ghost Dog in action, stone-faced Vargo wants the assassin dead, but Louie is hard-pressed to explain the complexities of his arrangement with Ghost Dog. Some of their relationship spurts forth as he is grilled, some is revealed gradually throughout the movie, but the gist is that Ghost Dog has pledged his life and skills to his daimyo, communicating with Louie only by carrier pigeon, accepting payment only on the first day of autumn.

Naturally this business of pacts and pigeons makes little sense to the other mobsters, who simply want Ghost Dog dead, or else, they promise, Louie will be pushing up the daisies next to Frank. Complicating matters, Ghost Dog is bound to protect his master and is virtually invisible, blending in on the streets or ducking out in his phantom lair atop an abandoned building. On this unlikely battlefield, old school pursues new school, but new school, informed by very old school, is prepared to launch a counterstrike.

This infusion of warrior philosophy is the gas in Ghost Dog's tank, and Jarmusch pumps it up for maximum octane throughout. Illustrative excerpts from Hagakure pop up on the screen to be read by Whitaker, setting the tone for each confrontation, and The Art of War also figures into the action. On a purely visual level, Jarmusch and the exceptional cinematographer Robby M¨ller (Down By Law, Repo Man, The Tango Lesson) reteam to create a brilliantly gritty samurai street chic, channeled through Whitaker's every calculated move and masterful expression. Ghost Dog is as convincing in his rooftop maneuvers with his sword as he is twirling his guns into his coat after use. It's gimmicky and a little depressing, glorifying these killing machines, but no less effective. When a backwoods cracker insults him late in the movie, citing that "this ain't no ancient culture," Ghost Dog's steady resolve leaves no room for doubt: Sometimes it is.

Delivered entirely straight, this approach would have yielded little more than an adolescent revenge movie, dressing up the basic theme of, say, The Crow (blood as payment for innocence stolen... hmm... that's sort of Hamlet, too, isn't it?) with the reverence and mystique of the old Kung Fu series. But this is a Jarmusch film, and the director ladles on winking ironies and surprise chuckles to leaven the morbid proceedings (hint: watch the license plates). He flirts with the ugly cool-factor of big, phallic silencers and contract killing, but, as surely as the RZA is evolving the rooster strut of rap, he's revising the form of street smartness. By using classic cartoons to comment upon the action, he accentuates the ludicrousness of the hits, especially when Ghost Dog stalks Valerio at home, where the aging gangster cops a Flava Flav in his bathroom. The silliness stops just short of cutting in old footage of John Belushi in his topknot and robe.

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