GENRES BLUR TOGETHER in Jim Jarmusch's latest droll work, which would've been pitched in Hollywood as "samurai flick meets mob comedy." Throw in a few of Jarmusch's ironic flourishes and his trademark deadpan humor, and you've got the intermittently funny Ghost Dog, which isn't about very much and plays like a minor style exercise from the director of Down by Law and Mystery Train.
Whitaker the carjacking ronin.
GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI
written and directed by Jim Jarmusch
starring Forest Whitaker
opens March 17 at Neptune
The self-made samurai is Forest Whitaker's Ghost Dog, rescued in his youth by minor mafioso Louie (John Tormey), to whom he's gratefully sworn his fealty. Louie uses G-Dog as an ultraprofessional hit man, one with laser-spotting guns and an expert knack for high-tech car theft, but who communicates only through carrier pigeons. It's a great joke—initially—but it wears thin fast, like everything else in the film. Ghost Dog falls into disfavor with Louie's higher-ups in the mob, who demand he be killed. Louie is then torn by duty and affection, while the fatalistic G-Dog defends himself with resolute efficiency.
Throughout, Jarmusch has the Dog read aphorisms aloud from his Samurai 101 training manual, with text flashed on screen. Similarly, his characters continually watch mindlessly violent, silly cartoons that self-consciously comment on the plot, while references to Rashomon abound. He keeps nudging us that the many killings aren't meant to be taken seriously, but after a while your ribs feel bruised by sheer repetitiveness. Meanwhile, Ghost Dog befriends a little girl—just like in a samurai flick or comic book—but the intentional cuteness of it all seems stale and pointless.
During his career lulls, Woody Allen has made a series of forgettable style exercises (think Shadows & Fog or September), and Jarmusch seems to be in a similar mode here. After the commercial failure of Dead Man (1995) and his Neil Young concert movie, there's a sense that he's treading water. Younger, hotter filmmakers like Tarantino have accustomed us to jokes between scenes of people getting shot, and it's a disappointment to find Jarmusch straying onto such bloody terrain. (The Dog's encounter with some redneck hunters seems particularly gratuitous in this regard.)
"What goes down comes back around," we hear on the terrific soundtrack by the RZA, alluding to G-Dog's implacable vengeance. We can enjoy the fitfully amusing process and the overdetermined irony of the vendetta, but as Whitaker doggedly insists "I follow a code," you wish that Jarmusch weren't bothering with such restrictions.