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'Ghost Dog': Time to Fall on a Sword

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 17, 2000


    'Ghost Dog: The Way of the Sumarai' Forest Whitaker, a samurai-hit man, practices his swordsmanship at his rooftop home. (Plywood Productions)
There's probably a simple Japanese fable buried under Jim Jarmusch's new film, "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai." It would be about the noble samurai and his unworthy master. The samurai serves through many dangerous battles; his master abuses him and ultimately betrays him. But the samurai dies smiling: He knows that the point was never the master, it was the samurai's allegiance to "the way."

That sounds like a pretty good movie. I'd like to see it someday. I hope they get around to making it. In the meantime, here's this week's wretched excess, which takes the above anecdote, inflates it with absurd modern violence and absurdist comedy notes, then drives it forward with ear-piercing rap music until the whole thing collapses into its own dark hole.

Forest Whitaker, a big man with fast moves and soulful eyes, plays Ghost Dog, otherwise unidentified, who lives a Zen-pure life on a rooftop in a mythically anonymous big city, where he practices with his sword and meditates on an ancient text full of amorphous bushwa. He serves Louie (John Tormey), a low-rent mafioso, underboss of the local mob, a kind of "Sopranos" reject. (In fact, a good deal of "Ghost Dog" suggests too much time logged watching HBO on Sunday nights.) Ghost Dog communicates with his master by carrier pigeon to protect his security; he gets his assignments--he's a hit man--and carries them out flawlessly.

But on the day our movie begins, he wastes a fellow named Handsome Frank, in the presence of Mr. Vargo's daughter, who was not supposed to be there. Though Ghost Dog is in no way responsible for this and though he naturally spares the girl (a catatonic Tricia Vessey, who can barely look up from the TV to note the murder occurring three feet away), Mr. Vargo--Henry Silva--decrees that Ghost Dog must die and that Louie must assist.

That's pretty much it for plot. What follows is some unbelievable low-end violence based on cartoon shenanigans (which explains the movie's fascination with cartoons) and some Jim Jarmusch-style "humor." This consists largely of Mafia lampoons handled crudely for the opera bouffe crowd. Cliff Gorman, for example, one of many people in the hierarchy that Ghost Dog eliminates one by one, is apt to break out into a rap riff at any moment. The other mafiosos just look at him with sullen, slack jaws (the deadpan, nonreactive stare is a dubious comic commonplace here).

But the movie sits in some awkward place between tones; it's too bloody to be funny and too silly to be dramatic and too self-indulgent to be anything other than what it is, one more bad movie.

GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI is rated R for 3,657 uses of the F-word in 119 minutes and some bloody shootings.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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"Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai"
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