A sniper who has shown no hesitation to kill a man for money has in his sights the Mafia don who has ordered his execution. Suddenly a bird lands on the barrel of the high-powered rifle obscuring the scope. Rather than getting angry, the sniper pauses to enjoy the beauty of the smaller things in life. In fact, prior to the arrival of the mafioso, the sniper had passed the time using his rifle’s scope as binoculars to bird watch. Such quiet moments are the rule and not the exception of Jim Jarmusch’s cerebral crime drama, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. As a darkly comic subversion of the noble assassin picture, Ghost Dog manages to have its cake and eat it too by poking fun at the archetypes of films like Leon: The Professional or Le Samourai while still painting a well-chiseled existentialist portrait of one man’s attempt to rise above the meaninglessness of life.

It may seem surprising to characterize a film about an inner-city assassin who lives his life by the strict code of the bushido as “art house,” but long time fans of Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man) expect no less. Taking a pastiche of three popular turn of the century genres as inspiration (the assassin film, the “gangsta” film, and the mafia movie), Jarmusch avoids simply producing a hackneyed amalgamation of the genres and instead creates a piercing look into the social and cultural identities at the heart of each culture. Except that barely begins to do justice to the nimble ways that Jarmusch not only explores genre archetypes but cleverly spins them on their heads (including a hip-hop loving Mafia boss or a 10 year old inner-city girl reading Rashomon). While the film is often meant to be satirical, Jim Jarmusch’s own insights into obsessions with faded cultures nearly undermines his own sense of humor.

After being saved as a young man by Mafia capo Louie (John Tormey), Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) takes on the mantle of a samurai and lives his life according to the rules and philosophies of the ancient Japanese text, Hagakure. As payment for saving his life, Ghost Dog becomes the “retainer” to Louie who pays Ghost Dog to act as a mercilessly efficient hit man for the mob. A samurai is loyal to his boss, and although Ghost Dog is basically a kind soul, he has no qualms about killing to repay his debt to the man who saved his life. When Ghost Dog is assigned to kill a disloyal capo to local mob boss Roy Vargo, the hit features a major road bump. Roy Vargo’s daughter witnesses the kill. To deflect the fact that he ordered a made man to be killed (and to try and save face with his daughter), Vargo orders Louie to kill Ghost Dog which sends our noble assassin on a quest to save his own life without causing any harm to his retainer.

While the mobsters and Ghost Dog all leave a stream of bodies in their wake, the film never leaves you excited or titillated by the violence. Ghost Dog’s assassinations are methodical and often over before they even begin. While he has what some would categorize as a vain habit of twirling his gun as if it were a samurai sword before he puts it back in its holster, it’s all part of the ritual that is so important to his lifestyle (and a potential symptom of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). As a basically decent human being, you may find yourself shocked by how coldly Ghost Dog commits these contract murders, but by the film’s end, you finally see the psychic trauma his murders have taken on him. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai lives in a world where violence begets more violence and stone cold mafiosi killers get their jollies by watching cartoonish violence like Itchy and Scratchy.

The first sign that you’re not watching a typical action movie should come when you realize Jim Jarmusch plans to have Forest Whitaker read several pages straight out of the Hagakure with the words as a visual backdrop as a recurring framing device for the themes of the film. Nearly every scene is bookended with a new homily from the Hagakure which goes on to either explain what just happened or what will happen. While these sections can be a little too obvious (and Jarmusch regularly becomes so philosophical that you can forget that at least half the film is meant to be satire), it allows the film to ask grander questions that aren’t always apparent in other assassin films which lend an air of faux-philosophy to their proceedings. There’s another moment where Ghost Dog carries on a conversation with a little girl named Pearline about their shared love of classic books that contributes to the film’s overall literary tone.

As a long-time fan of the Wu-Tang clan, it shouldn’t be shocking that the film’s urban and atmospheric score by the RZA was one of the film’s most powerful assets. When you listen to Enter the 36 Chambers, RZA’s production always made you feel like you had stepped right into New York City in the 90s. Along with the on-location shooting, RZA’s score accomplishes the same goal. Considering the prevalence of Caribbean characters (and familiar streets), I’m fairly certain the film is meant to take place in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Although certain elements of the film felt slightly ridiculous (an Asian man kung-fu kicking away a thief), it felt like the Brooklyn I know and love. RZA’s score isn’t just a hip-hop production to match the urban setting but something far more ambitious which nails inner-city culture but aspires to something higher.

Forest Whitaker was well-cast in the title role (though his slightly over-weight nature does make it difficult to believe that he is a fastidiously trained assassin). Whitaker has always possessed one of Hollywood’s most subtly emotive faces. Particularly when he was younger, if you needed a young man who looked like he was carrying all of the weight and pain of the world on his shoulders, Whitaker was your guy. Like the rest of the film, there is nothing flashy about Whitaker’s performance. When all of his pigeons (which he uses to deliver messages) are murdered by the Mafia, Whitaker turns in a wonderful scene with no grand outbursts. He just becomes a man who is slumped over by the weight of the world that’s coming after him and when he starts speaking to his last pigeon, you know that he means serious business.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is a wonderful, smart, and often pensive film, but if you read too deeply into it, you’re falling right into Jim Jarmusch’s seriocomic intellectual games. His own subtlety and existentialist queries work to undermine his own attempts to show how silly these types of films are in the first place. I guess it’s “Truffaut Was Right” in action. If you’re looking for a stylized action-thriller where the bullets rain as much as so called “deep thoughts,” look elsewhere. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is nearly the anti-Boondock Saints. Yet, if you like films that ask a little bit more (even if doing so violates one of the main conceits of the film), Jim Jarmusch should keep you entertained.

Final Score: B++

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