Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” is a playful but exceedingly wispy piece of doodling by Jim Jarmusch that plays minor variations on the mercifully declining hit-man genre. The timing seems all wrong for the goofy, absurdist tone the picture applies to a story of a busy American killer who perceives himself as living by the code of ancient Japanese samurai. A companion piece in some thematic ways to the indie maverick’s last feature, “Dead Man,” new item looks destined to stake out no more of a claim at the box office than did that creatively singular but commercially deadly 1995 Johnny Depp Western.
As he goes his own way making films about violent loners living outside society, Jarmusch is edging himself further into the margins of the industry with pictures that few people are interested in seeing. On a moment-by-moment basis, this film has its share of idiosyncratic cleverness and invention, but the overall conception is terribly thin and the scenes lack complexity, extensive character interaction and a sense of meaningful confrontation, despite the large number of killings. On the most elemental level, it’s virtually a “Death Wish” for hipsters, as it features a cool killer with a groovy philosophical code who likes to dispense Japanese books as much as he does bullets.
Forest Whitaker portrays the otherwise nameless title character, a physically ample man who dresses like any other street character and lives in a dismal rooftop shack with an adjoining pigeon coop. He possesses high-tech crime equipment such as gadgets that can seemingly disarm any security system or start any car and a fancy assortment of guns. He also lives a meticulously ordered existence that is defined and regulated by “The Book of the Samurai,” an expression of the warrior’s creed from which long excerpts are both read by Ghost Dog and printed onscreen at frequent intervals.
Every samurai needs someone to whom he pledges undying loyalty, and in Ghost Dog’s case it’s Louie (John Tormey), a small-time Italian mobster who saved the young black man’s life years back during an attack by thugs. Since then, Ghost Dog, whose name refers to his ability to come and go without being noticed or traced, has pulled off a dozen perfect hits for Louie.
But when he’s seen on his unlucky 13th job, Louie’s superiors decide he’s got to go and begin sending shooters of their own after him. Realizing what’s going on, Ghost Dog commences a methodical campaign to wipe out his many adversaries, resulting in a succession of killings more notable for their bizarre circumstances and intended humor (the victims are all expendable gangsters, after all) than for any tension or moral dimensions.
The film gets by for a while on the basis of Whitaker’s dignified gravity and Jarmusch’s trademark whimsy: Ghost Dog communicates with his boss strictly via carrier pigeon, his “best friend” is a French-speaking ice cream vendor (Isaach de Bankole) whom he can’t understand, he bestows such books as “Rashomon” on a girl he meets around the ice cream truck, and pic shows middle-aged mob figures as being into rap music. Pic’s comic highlight is arguably a very funny comparison of rappers’ names with the nicknames of Italian hoods.
As the action progresses, increasing invention is devoted to the ingenious ways Ghost Dog figures out to kill his enemies, the capper being a shot up through a bathroom sink drain. It all winds up in a self-conscious “High Noon”-style showdown between Ghost Dog and the man to whom he has devoted his life, with former’s philosophical musings and love of books ultimately prevailing over corporeal concerns.
It’s a thin conceit to hang a two-hour picture upon, and with Jarmusch operating in minimalist mode, tale is never expanded in ways that invite deep interest. No effort is made to flesh out scenes or to create dramatic dynamics, as most of the running time features Ghost Dog alone or in one-on-one exchanges that are bereft of development. Given the lack of the sort of structure and intellectual conception that gave “Dead Man” its stature and dimension — the progression from society to primitivism, the transformation from “civilized” man to killer — the gambits in “Ghost Dog” seem simply like literary and cinematic games devoid of any larger meaning.
Set in what’s identified on license plates as “The Industrial State” and shot in Jersey City and outlying New York areas, film has a deliberately generic East Coast working-class ambiance that’s populated by archetypes. Individual scenes have their undeniable charms, many of them provided by Whitaker, who does little emoting but carries himself with implacable calm and confidence. Grace notes also come courtesy of Bankole’s irrepressible friendliness and the various gangsters’ stereotypical tough-guy attitudes.
Robby Muller’s cinematography is clean and lovely, and frequent small pleasures derive from the fluid editing and jump dissolves, striking overhead shots and the distinctive hip-hoppish score by RZA.