Mixing ancient Eastern philosophy with hip-hop street smarts and a Scorsese undercard gangland atmosphere, fiercely independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch paints a strangely serene portrait of a surgical, stealthy and enigmatic hit man in the understated and penetrating "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai."
Deeply immersed in the title role is the stoic Forest Whitaker as an assassin with unshakable focus. A high-tech thief, a loner from a ghetto background, a taciturn savant and a proselyte of 18th Century Japanese warrior code, he performs hits for a mobster (John Tormey, "Safe Men") who once saved his life. But after his most recent job -- killing a mafia turncoat in front of the mob boss' daughter -- he has a price on his head and is forced to eliminate his enemies before they eliminate him.
Jarmusch and Whitaker have conspired to lend a mesmerizing calm to this uncommon story of a violent but internally peaceful life. The simultaneous union and juxtaposition of oil-and-water elements -- the deeply reflective samurai mentality, ghetto life, the mafia honor, a surprisingly light comedic vein and a hardcore rap score by the RZA -- left imagery and axioms tripping around in my head for days after seeing the film.
A fantastically versatile actor, Whitaker ("The Crying Game," "Light It Up") gives a unique gravity to the title role (Ghost Dog is his street nickname) with an expressionless but valorous bearing that feels at once threatening and tranquil. He brings a mysterious congruity to the amalgam image of corn row braids, ghetto attire, Eastern tattoos and a samurai sword. He seems completely at home in the rooftop shanty where he lives, practicing swordplay, meditating and raising carrier pigeons (his chosen form of communication with clients). And he demonstrates with certitude the philosophies by which he abides, taking on the mob with guns blazing when he's double-crossed.
Giving the movie another kind of unusual balance are the earnest, diametrical friendships Ghost Dog forms with a little girl (Camille Winbush) in a public park and a Haitian ice cream vendor (Isaach de Bankolé from Jarmusch's "Night On Earth" vignette) who speaks no English.
Jarmusch ("Stranger Than Paradise," "Down By Law," "Dead Man") enriches his on-screen world of organized crime by serving up authentic (if trivial) details like the utterly tasteless decor of mob lackey Tormey's apartment (crucifixes, velvet paintings and a wagon wheel chandelier) and he delights in unexpected, absurdist humor.
But he keeps his eye on the big picture, melding two genres into an inventive, hypnotic and intelligent urban fable that could become a deserving sleeper on the art house circuit if it can draw the cross-over hip-hop crowd.
Run time: 116 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 6th October 1999
Distributed by: Artisan Entertainment
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 82%
Fresh: 77 Rotten: 17
IMDB: 7.6 / 10
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Forest Whitaker as Ghost Dog, Cliff Gorman as Sonny Valerio, Tricia Vessey as Louise Vargo, Henry Silva as Ray Vargo, Victor Argo as Vinny, Joseph Rigano as Joe Rags, John Tormey as Louie, Damon Whitaker as Ghost Dog (Child), Frank Minucci as Big Angie, Richard Portnow as Handsome Frank, Gene Ruffini as Old Consigliere, Frank Adonis as Bodyguard, RZA as Samurai, Isaach De Bankolé as Raymond
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