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That's the Spirit!

Jim Jarmusch shows he still has bite with Ghost Dog.

The screen is Jim Jarmusch's playground. Or so it appears. The quirky director of Down by Law and Mystery Train has attracted a following as loyal as the Quentin Tarantino cult, because his stuff, too, is hip, ironic and resolutely contrary. Jarmusch seems to take a kid's unqualified pleasure from making movies, despite his intellectual leanings. Who but a fun-lover would string together five striking vignettes set in five taxi cabs in five different cities around the world, as Jarmusch did in Night on Earth? What dark, unfettered whimsy does it take to conceive a bizarre Western in which the young hero is simultaneously pursued by bounty hunters and thought to be a reincarnation of the Romantic poet William Blake, as in Dead Man? What depth of wit could transform a mid-winter road trip to icy Cleveland into high comedy, as in Stranger Than Paradise?

In Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, the manchild is back at play. His toys this time around are film genres -- the traditional samurai epic, Hollywood gangster movies, Hong Kong chop-socky, revenge Westerns, kick-ass Black Power fantasy. He gleefully deconstructs them, then piles them all back together with the abandon of a six-year-old building sand castles at the beach. This is not effortless moviemaking; it just looks that way. And if there's a certain built-in slightness to it, the same what-the-hell attitude that enlivens all of Jarmusch's work, so much the better. Clearly, he would rather surprise us than take us to school.

His hero, played by the bearish, moon-faced Forest Whitaker, is a kind of transcendental hit man (and surpassing car thief) known only by the moniker Ghost Dog. He lives in a dung-splattered rooftop shack with a flock of carrier pigeons, and he spends most of his down time soaking up Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, an eighteenth-century warrior's manual rife with ancient Japanese codes of discipline. In the course of the film, which lasts 116 minutes, Jarmusch puts whole pages of the text up on the screen while the protagonist solemnly reads them to us -- lest we're tempted to forget that contract killers, too, have their standards. By the time you're back in the theater lobby, you've learned, among other things, that the implacable samurai meditates daily on the inevitability of death and that even with his head cut off (figuratively speaking, we trust), he is committed to performing one last act "with certainty." On this, of course, hangs Jarmusch's neoclassical plot.

The big kill: Forest Whitaker follows the way of the samurai  --  and director Jim Jarmusch.
The big kill: Forest Whitaker follows the way of the samurai -- and director Jim Jarmusch.

Ghost Dog's setting is unnamed and purposely anonymous, but if you've been slumming with The Sopranos for a couple of episodes, you'll recognize the industrial wastes of Bayonne and Jersey City when you see them. Almost by necessity, Jarmusch conjures up his own heavy-jowled, bent-nosed, none-too-bright Mafia family -- mostly so that Ghost Dog will have lots of guys in tailored suits to annihilate when the time comes. These cliched wiseguys could just as well be cattle rustlers wearing black hats or sword-swinging infidels from a neighboring province, so happily jumbled are the movie's references to other movies. Wherever he's headed in terms of screen myth, though, trust this deep-thinking director to come up with some weird humor: The don of this Family (Henry Silva) watches violent Felix the Cat cartoons with rapt attention, as if there were some hidden message in that mayhem, and one of his lieutenants is so enthralled with hip-hop that he busts rhymes while brushing his teeth in his underwear. The score, by the way, is composed and performed by the multi-talented RZA, late of Wu Tang Clan. It's a heady mix of rap, electronica and synthetic jazz that perfectly suits Jarmusch's idiosyncratic moviemaking style.

In the beginning, our man Ghost Dog has no argument with the local goombahs. In fact, he's the loyal retainer of one of them, Louie (John Tormey), because Louie once saved his life. Adherent to his warrior code, the big guy has performed a dozen impeccable hits for his employer and master. Naturally, number thirteen goes awry, and the Family calls for Ghost Dog's head. Expect trouble. And blood. When the mob slaughters the hero's beloved pigeons -- the moral equivalent of killing John Wayne's pioneer family, or maybe looking cross-eyed at Clint Eastwood -- he turns avenging angel, and the movie lore really begins to stack up. Imagine a synthesis of Yojimbo, Shaft and every lone gunslinger who ever stopped for a shot of whiskey in Deadwood, and you've got a pretty good picture of the guy.

By the end, Ghost Dog has littered the screen with bodies and Jarmusch has taken us on the usual array of peculiar side trips. He shows us a man building a huge sailboat on the roof of his house (how to get it down!) and introduces a Haitian ice cream vendor (Isaach de Bankolé) who communicates with the hero in French despite the hero's ignorance of French. He gives us a little girl (Camille Winbush) whose lunchbox is stuffed with books -- The Wind in the Willows, The Souls of Black Folk and a bit of soft-core porn called Night Nurse. The joke is sublime, playing childhood's unqualified thirst for learning against the inanities of pop culture. (Once inside Jarmusch's strangely tilted world, audiences tend to accept even surreal literary humor.) Enter a much-traveled, blood-spattered paperback of Rashomon, which works its way deep into the plot. In another movie, this might be pretension; here, it's the old Jarmusch charm.

There is some nice physical humor as well: Ghost Dog waves his nine millimeter around like a samurai sword; a stooped old man about to be mugged in an alley delivers a couple of swift karate kicks to his attacker's jaw. Even when Ghost Dog opens up on his tormenters, a blazing automatic in each hand, Jarmusch manages to cast a complex comic spell. Simultaneously, we behold violence for its own sake, a comment on the absurdity of violence wrapped in a big, untidy chunk of movie history and the director's sly swipe at the catharsis we feel when the bad guys get their comeuppance. The total effect seems so effortless, Ghost Dog's quest at once so real and so synthetic, we know we must be at the movies. Not only that, we've been nailed to our seats by a player who delights in letting us in on his game.

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