No Better Tomorrow

Mr. Death: Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

If you can bear to hear the question from someone who has never made it through one of the Godfathers, let alone an episode of The Sopranos: What's the deal with gangster movies? Why is the genre so perennially popular? I mean, last I checked, Americans were more likely to get shot or run over by the police than to shake hands with some greasy mobster from New Jersey named Vino. Does the attraction to said Vinos--and their Tarantinoesque offspring--have something to do with decaying models of masculinity? Nostalgia for a well-massaged vision of the Western frontier? Or is the genre concerned with morality somehow--morality within a gun-crazy society?

Don't look at me. I'm just playing with hypotheses. And they're not even mine. I'm copping from Jim Jarmusch's latest, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, which turns out to be that rare bird within the genre: the self-examined gangster movie. Notice I didn't say the self-conscious gangster movie. There's a difference between unrolling the mummified clichés of cinematic gangsterism for fun and profit, and actually looking to see what's inside the dirty linen (while not ignoring fun and profit). The first action generates irony (Tarantino), and the second, meaning (John Woo). Not that those two goals need to be mutually exclusive. They just have been, generally. What's cool about Jarmusch's gangster movie is its combination plate of meaningful irony. What's uncool about Jarmusch's gangster movie is that it's a gangster movie.

Drawing some from Woo's films with Chow Yun-Fat and more from Jean-Pierre Melville's with Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jarmusch presents Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker), a meditative, sleepy-eyed assassin whose moral code derives from the 18th-century Japanese warrior text Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai. Ghost Dog lives on the roof of a shabby building in New Jersey with a cage full of carrier pigeons; his only friend is an African immigrant ice-cream vendor (Isaach de Bankole) who shares Ghost Dog's thoughts, if not his language. Ghost Dog considers himself the retainer of a low-level mafioso named Louie (John Tormey), because--in an incident remembered differently by both men--Louie once saved his life. When the daughter of Louie's boss witnesses one of Ghost Dog's contract killings, the family head Ray Vargo (a bizarrely frozen Henry Silva) orders Ghost Dog dead. Instead, the elegant killer turns on the crime family, moving to protect his "master" Louie and himself.

If there's a sting in the idea of a contemporary black man defending a white man as his "master," don't imagine that the director did not intend it. Unlike Tarantino's films, with their context-free use of the word "nigger," Ghost Dog confronts urban racial politics sharply and wittily: Italian-American mobsters mock "Indians and niggers" for their fanciful monikers, while blithely calling their associates "Handsome Frank" and "Sammy the Snake"; a frail Chinese man kung-fus his black would-be mugger. A movie that at base involves a black man wiping out a slew of old white guys, Ghost Dog balances its fatal and realistic divisions with a startling--at least for an American indie--show of cultural multiplicity. Jarmusch deftly incorporates at least five languages, rich Asiatic-African-American music by Wu-Tang Clan's RZA, snippets of Japanese philosophy, and American cartoons from Betty Boop to Itchy and Scratchy.

These in addition to all those stylized gangster moves, of course. Ghost Dog clearly wants to ride on the mystique of the gangster motif and critique it. Whitaker and Jarmusch make Ghost Dog a suave expert with hard-core equipment, deep thoughts, and a gentle way with birds and children. He's still a brutal killer, though, and the killed are not without character and worth. The racist (if Public Enemy-quoting!) mobsters are a comically pathetic bunch who can't muster money for rent or mortgages; until they target Ghost Dog, they appear mostly to be putting contracts out on each other. What Jarmusch is tracking, via the plot and the cartoon commentary, is a horrible escalation of social violence leading, as Ghost Dog notes, to the extinction of "ancient tribes"--and archaic moral codes.

There are survivors in this game, notably two young women, one black, one white. But the film leaves it open as to whether they will transcend the killing habit or continue it. Death--of a way of life, a way of thinking, a cultural (and racial) order--also filled the frame of Jarmusch's last and best feature, Dead Man, a sort of elegiac anti-Western. I'm wondering why this anti-gangster film, for all its keen edges, doesn't resonate as profoundly as its predecessor. All the Jarmusch tics are in place: the speaking silences, the striking landscapes, the droll conversations. Yet there's something missing, some emotional vulnerability or uncertainty. I'm guessing it's the fault of the form. In a gangster movie, men kill each other until the one left alive walks away and rationalizes all the killing. In Ghost Dog, the form masters Jarmusch.


Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre.

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