Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Movie archive: Ghost Dog - The Way of the Samurai

Director Jim Jarmusch’s 1999 film Ghost Dog is his first foray into what might be labelled “urban crime drama”. Yet no such label can effectively describe this strange yet quite brilliant film. A frequent feature in Jarmusch’s movies is the juxtaposition of cultural elements that would not seem to logically go together at face value; here he draws together the disparate threads of ancient Japan’s samurai code, the mafia, and the black American inner city.

The character we know only as Ghost Dog (Forrest Whitaker) is a mysterious loner who works as a hitman for ageing mobster Louie (John Tormey). Adhering strictly to the Way of the Samurai, he considers himself forever indebted to Louie who stumbled across him being beaten and saved his life years ago. When a hit on “made man” Handsome Frank gets complicated, the mob decide that Ghost Dog must get whacked in revenge.

Despite the complicated concept, it’s not a particularly complicated plot. But as with much of Jarmusch’s work, it’s the details rather than the storyline that make this a compelling film. The occasional violence is interspersed with quirky, humourous touches, as Jarmusch continually subverts the conventions of each genre. The mob figures are ageing wannabes who command little respect, and seem to spend an inordinate amount of time watching cartoons. Ghost Dog’s only true friend is the Haitian ice-cream vendor Raymond, who speaks only French; the pair seem to understand each other despite understanding not a word of each other’s language.

Whitaker, surely one of the great actors of our era, gives an excellent performance of great subtlety in the title role. It is a testament to his performance that a character who is essentially a cold-blooded killer can still show a believable warmth and humanity. But it is the supporting cast who are most memorable. Ivoirien actor Isaach de Bankole is a standout as Raymond, while Cliff Gorman has a star turn as Flava Flav-loving mafia don Sonny Valerio.

The film moves at no great pace, and viewers with short attention spans may find it boring. Yet its hypnotic, meditative feel is also one of its greatest strengths. Cinematographer Robby Muller captures New York’s lonely, dark cityscapes in a manner that recalls Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, which combine with RZA’s eerie hip-hop soundtrack to create an absorbing atmosphere. The production genius behind the Wu-Tang Clan is a logical fit for this movie – he’s been creating the musical versions of urban samurai gangster flicks for years – and it’s a reminder of why Wu-Tang was so great to begin with.

A splendid film that again marks Jarmusch out as a true original.

1 comment:

  1. Jarmusch is the master - no doubt. I particularly love Deadman, a true classic.