[Screen It]

(2000) (Forest Whitaker, John Tormey) (R)

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Drama: A contract killer, who lives his life as a modern-day samurai, must deal with a crime family that now wants him dead.
Ghost Dog (FOREST WHITAKER) is a solitary contract killer who's pledged his loyalty to Louie (JOHN TORMEY), a smalltime mobster who saved his life many years earlier. Louie works for Ray Vargo (HENRY SILVA), the head of a local crime family, and takes orders from the family's under-boss, Sonny Valerio (CLIFF GORMAN).

It seems that Sonny has ordered a hit on Handsome Frank (RICHARD PORTNOW), a fellow mobster who's been seeing Ray's daughter, Louise Vargo (TRICIA VESSEY). Receiving his instructions via his trusted carrier pigeon, Ghost Dog successfully completes his mission, but didn't realize that Louise would be there to witness the hit. As a result, Ray orders that the hit man be eliminated.

Unaware of the contract now on his life, Ghost Dog goes about his daily activities of following the precepts of the 18th century warrior text, Hagakure: The Way of the Samurai. He also spends time in the local park with Raymond (ISAACH DE BANKOLÉ), a French speaking ice cream vendor who's his "best friend" despite neither understanding the other's language, and befriends a young girl, Pearline (CAMILLE WINBUSH), who shares a strong literary interest with the contract killer who's fashioned his life as a samurai.

Eventually learning of Vargo's order to have him rubbed out, Ghost Dog consults the teachings and philosophy of the Hagakure as he prepares to battle Ray, Sonny and the rest of the crime family that wants him dead.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
On average, most film critics see several hundred films per year, ranging from the good to the bad and the ugly. If there's one thing that those of us who spend too many hours in darkened theaters hate at least as much as (and sometimes more than) bad films are those that come off as nothing but a shameless retreading of previous films.

As such, we usually welcome any that are different from the norm, simply for having that distinctive quality. Of course, different can sometimes mean brilliant as in "Being John Malkovich," while at others it can be dreck such as "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes" or "The Loss of Sexual Innocence."

Falling somewhere between those extremes, "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" could earn its "different" label simply for its unique, if hard to market title. Yet, this urban gangster meets samurai meets mafia meets comedy film nearly defies description (and certainly requires more uses of "meets"), let alone an explanation of how and/or why such diverse elements were thrown together into one film.

Although any description of the film makes it sound like it must be a spoof, this multi-genre hybrid is meant as "realistic" experience peppered with moments of odd and occasionally absurd humor. After all, where else could one see a hit man doing his murderous duty in one scene, and then some white, middle-aged mobsters discussing their favorite rap artist in another?

One certainly can't miss the samurai elements that are thrown in as full screen passages of text and simultaneously read as voice over narration. Containing bits of samurai wisdom and philosophy, the full screen inserts come off as something along the lines of introductory headers for the film's subsequent and progressive "chapters."

Considering all of that, I'm not sure if even the most accomplished filmmaker could have pulled off delivering such a picture that would make sense, but writer/director Jim Jarmusch ("Night on Earth," "Mystery Train") certainly gives it the old college try. That's not to say, however, that the film isn't without its share of problems.

For starters, and despite its posturing to make viewers think otherwise, the film is essentially all flash and style over real substance. Sure, one can read all sorts of meanings into those samurai-based life and battle notes, and after the initial confusion over their repeated appearances, they do begin to take on sort of a quirky charm of their own.

Even so, when the film is boiled down to its essence, this is just another Clint Eastwood/Charles Bronson type film where a bad guy with "integrity" hunts down and kills those who are missing that attribute and recently wronged him. As such, and for all of the fun philosophical mumbo jumbo, a simple "kill or be killed" message would have sufficed as the guiding principle for most of what transpires in the film.

In place of anything resembling more of a plot, Jarmusch instead opts to infuse the film with an abundance of hip style that literally oozes from most every scene. From the vivid camerawork by cinematographer Robby Muller ("Shattered Image," "Mad Dog and Glory") to the innovative and just as conglomerated musical score by singer/producer RZA (of the Wu-Tang Clan), the film is near constantly stimulating, at least to some degree, to the senses.

Yet, just when things start to get good and the film gets on a roll, the filmmakers throw in some goofy material (such as the white, middle-aged mobsters displaying their rap music knowledge and appreciation) or simply let the film's momentum escape like air from an untied balloon. The latter is particularly evident when the protagonist's quest to find the bad guy turns into what essentially comes off as a leisurely and momentum-killing drive.

The result, whether intentional or not, is that the film constantly feels uneven and unfocused despite containing some well-staged and executed scenes. Those obviously involve the "hit" action sequences, but also ones featuring the title character and his best friend. What make that bit funny is that neither of them understands the other's language, but they always manage to make a good guess about what's said, a point that's then echoed and confirmed by the translated subtitles that appear on the screen.

I'm not exactly sure why such scenes appear or are as repeated as often as they are - beyond giving the protagonist some human qualities - but they are rather enjoyable and work well as comic relief (in contrast to some of the other similar material that feels too artificial).

Even so, for every one of those scenes there are other strange, or simply bad ones to counter them and knock the film off its tracks or at least unnecessarily distract the viewer. The biggest one is obviously the ending where Jarmusch decided - for symbolic but not completely justifiable reasons - to throw in an old west standoff in the middle of the street (complete with ringing church bells as if high noon). The result is downright ludicrous.

Meanwhile, most of the middle-aged thugs seem mesmerized by various cartoons - ranging from Betty Boop to Itchy and Scratchy from "The Simpsons" - that are present for unknown symbolic reasons, while a James Bond like radio transmitting device the protagonist uses not only to open cars, but also start them, seems out of place and completely yanks the viewer from the proceedings.

Forest Whitaker ("Light It Up," "Phenomenon") makes quite an impression in this new twist on Eastwood's old "Man With No Name" character, and both Isaach De Bankolé ("A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries") and Camille Winbush ("Eraser") are decent as his friends in the park. Despite their occasional comic tendencies, however, the characters portraying the criminal element - including John Tormey (a bit character actor in "Safe Men" and "The Real Blonde"), Cliff Gorman ("Hoffa," "Night and the City") and Henry Silva ("The End of Violence," "Mad Dog Time") - aren't that convincing and collectively come off as one of the film's weak links.

While the film is hard to pigeonhole, it's not difficult to guess that it will elicit all sorts of varied responses from those who see it. At our screening, some people seemed to love it, while one guy left stating that those were two hours of his life he'd never get back. With its plentiful share of both good and bad moments, the film may become something of a cult hit among teen and twenty-something males due to its hip style. It's highly unlikely, however, that mainstream audiences will be as receptive to this unique film. I had, and still have, mixed feelings toward this genre-bending film, and thus rate "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" as a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed February 22, 2000 / Posted March 17, 2000

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