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In Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog, tribalism gnaws on its own bones.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

MAY 8, 2000:  Jim Jarmusch is the hipster poet of global culture. Well, actually, he's just one of them; you could put the same tag on Hong Kong's Wong Kar-Wai, Vietnam's Tran Anh Hung, and probably another dozen or so besides. There's a whole generation of filmmakers out there messing around in the intersections of nations and ethnicities, morals and mores.

But among American directors, Jarmusch is the most persistent and sophisticated internationalist. Where Quentin Tarantino is content to riff on the surface—In Europe, they put mayonnaise on their French fries!—Jarmusch's entire career has been an exploration of the barriers between people (and peoples) and the things that transcend them. And for all the laconic cool of his movies—you can't get much more laconic than his arguable masterpiece, 1996's appropriately titled Dead Man—there's an underlying warmth, a ragged faith in the possibility of connection.

That faith is particularly evident in his new film, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. If it wasn't Jarmusch, the set-up would have you bracing for one more Tarantino knock-off: a black hit man named Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) lives according to Japanese samurai principles and works for the mafia, cranking hip hop on his stereo the whole time. Rap and martial arts, gangsta and gangsters, a mish-mash of Hollywood and MTV clichés—it sounds like it came from the marketing department, not from an indie godfather.

But if Ghost Dog gets off on its own coolness—and it does—it also has a lot more on its mind than cheap action-movie pay-offs. Even the big shoot-outs are deliberately quick and understated; you know what's going to happen, it happens, and the film moves on at its own measured pace. There's a lot of violence, but it's never really the point. Jarmusch is, as always, interested in refracting moral (and cinematic) traditions through a pan-cultural prism. Most of the characters who die have to die, and in fact most of them want to die, because the world they know is coming to an end.

This is Jarmusch's millennial movie, a 21st century bookend to the 19th century revisionism of Dead Man. That film, a Zen Western shot in silvery black and white, chronicled the triumph of imperial death culture—the rape of the land and the genocidal devastation of Manifest Destiny. Ghost Dog is about the ultimate breakdown of that same system, the failure of tribalism in a world of blurry borders.

It's also a lot of fun, at least if you accept it on its own terms. Ghost Dog is a near-mythic figure, and Jarmusch doesn't bother trying to explain him beyond a single flashback. Why he lives on a rooftop with an aerie of carrier pigeons, where he received his samurai assassin training, how he rationalizes his dispassionate killing—none of it is clear. And that's okay, both because Jarmusch is working with a metaphor rather than a character and because he's found the perfect actor to embody it. Forest Whitaker has always had an unexpected grace, a sly stillness behind his lazy eye and babyfat frame. In Ghost Dog, he moves like a dancer, twirling his long-barrel pistols like swords and gliding through crowded streets as if he were actually invisible. Like Johnny Depp in Dead Man, he provides a calm center for Jarmusch's multicultural storming.

The movie follows a pretty conventional plot, albeit one full of genre tweaks. When the mob boss's daughter is accidentally present during a contract killing, the clinically insane boss (Henry Silva, with alarmingly wide eyes and constipated lips) orders Ghost Dog "eliminated." The problem is, the Vargo crime family is an aging fraternity, barely able to pay rent on its dingy headquarters and full of guys who can't make it up three flights of stairs without wheezing. They are, of course, no match for their prey. The only one who knows that is Louie (John Tormey), Ghost Dog's immediate boss. The two of them understand each other—they're driven by the same codes of honor and vengeance, or nearly the same. Louie's come from age-old loyalty to the "family"; Ghost Dog's are from Hagekure: The Book of the Samurai, which he quotes repeatedly through the film.

That cultural cross-over is the jumping-off point for a portrait of a confused new world. Elsewhere in the movie, Italian gangsters rap along to Public Enemy, Ghost Dog strikes a friendship with a Haitian ice cream vendor even though neither understands a word the other says, and three characters—the mob boss's daughter, Ghost Dog, and a young Haitian girl in his neighborhood—all read Rashomon. When two of the gangsters are pulled over by a female state trooper, they're momentarily paralyzed, caught between two moral dictates—kill cops, but don't kill women. It's no wonder one of the mafiosos says with some relief, just before he dies from Ghost Dog-inflicted wounds, "At least he's taking us out the old way, like real gangsters."

There are rough spots in the movie, particularly when Jarmusch gets self-conscious with his reflexive deadpan humor. A scene where the gangsters talk about names of rappers and Indian warriors sets up a fairly flat punchline, and some of the other jokes are jarringly out of key with the film's fuzzed-out tone. In contrast, the score by Wu-Tang Clan mastermind The RZA is pitch perfect; the Wu-Tang's music has always been dubbed "cinematic," and The RZA lives up to it with a continuous undercurrent of broken hip-hop beats and ominous strings.

In the inevitable showdown between Ghost Dog and Louie, it doesn't really matter who "wins"—as Ghost Dog puts it, they're both "almost extinct" members of "different ancient tribes." But what is there to replace the old orders and certainties? Jarmusch is hazier on that—at some points, he falls into children-are-the-future clichés—but he at least seems optimistic. From the Hungarian wanderer of Stranger Than Paradise through the Japanese and Italian tourists in Mystery Train to the pop melting pot of Ghost Dog, he is a chronicler and an apostle of cultural fluidity. And, as even the shaggier parts of Ghost Dog affirm, he is also the most consistently interesting filmmaker in America.

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