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Slice of Life: Forest Whitaker demands final cut as a self-styled samurai in Jim Jarmusch's new movie, 'Ghost Dog.'

The Zen of Mafia

Jim Jarmusch's 'Ghost Dog' mixes samurai wisdom with mob intrigue

By Nicole McEwan

A GORGEOUS mobster's daughter who reads Rashomon for kicks. An aging gangster who raps from Public Enemy. A ghetto schoolgirl whose lunch box is stuffed with books: Frankenstein, The Souls of Black People and The Wind in the Willows. These are but a few of the offbeat types who inhabit Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Another is the title character, an African-American contract killer who resides in a rooftop shanty, keeps pigeons, lives by the ancient code of the samurai--and works for the Mafia. If it's idiosyncratic by design, rife with contradiction and stranger then fiction, it must be a new Jim Jarmusch film. A mixture of Eastern philosophy and Mafia intrigue, with a hip-hop soundtrack by the RZA of the Wu Tang Clan, Ghost Dog is difficult to categorize. Like all of Jarmusch's work, from Stranger Than Paradise through Dead Man, it examines the friction and fallout that occurs when disparate worlds collide. It's also about codes of conduct and their virtual disappearance from a society that takes more cues from TV commercials than it does from literature and philosophy.

At the film's core is the unusual friendship between mobster Louie (John Tormey) and the reclusive Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker). Through flashbacks, we learn how Louie saved the young man's life. Because the loner lives by the precepts of the 18th-century warrior text Hagakure: The Way of the Samurai, Ghost Dog takes on the role of Louie's "retainer"--meaning he must protect the mob thug, even if this devotion results in death. The film's tag line, "Live by the code. Die by the code," alludes to this thoroughly unmodern philosophy.

The character may be the most singular movie antihero in recent memory--a man whose firmly defined life-outlook straddles past and present worlds with a rare grace. He's a virtual antidote to the nebulous boy-men of recent films like Fight Club and The Beach, which depict whiny slacker types attempting to purify themselves through mindless mayhem. Neither hero nor villain, Dog is guided by knowledge derived through intensive study. Observant and resourceful, he is a "self-made" man at war with "made men," racketeers whose place in organized crime has been made legit according to a distinctive code of honor. But although samurai warriors are as extinct as knights in shining armor, there'll always be mobsters in America, Jarmusch suggests.

Ghost Dog features violence but never basks in it. One interesting motif Jarmusch employs is depicting each character watching undeniably violent yet classic kiddy cartoons, from Felix the Cat to The Road Runner. Ultimately, these clips act as a chorus, subverting the savagery by mocking it. Jarmusch's goal was to demonstrate the pervasiveness of violent images in our culture, a saturation that results in apathy.


Ghost Dog (R; 115 min.), directed and written by Jim Jarmusch, photographed by Robby Müller and starring Forest Whitaker, John Tormey and Cliff Gorman, opens Friday at Camera 1 in San Jose and the Palo Alto Square.

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From the March 16-22, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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