The first thing Jim Jarmusch asks you to do in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is to look up and down. Look up: From a relatively fixed point on the ground, you see a solitary bird in flight, soaring across the unbounded sky. Look down: From the bird's mobile viewpoint, you see factory buildings, piers, apartment houses, roads--an interlocked multiplicity.
What if you could merge these two ways of seeing? Then you might view a character, in one glance, as an individual and a type, a free moral agent and a boxed-in element of a pattern. You might be able to laugh, worry, admire and mourn and yet keep your distance. That, in fact, is how you see Forest Whitaker as the title character in Ghost Dog--through a trick of perspective, which makes him simultaneously a way-cool hero and the toy of a jesting filmmaker.
It is the film's conceit that Ghost Dog, an African-American from the slums of Jersey City, is a contract killer who works for Italian-American gangsters. His home is a rooftop shack (seen most often in twilight); his only companions, a coop of pigeons. And this is because Ghost Dog is not simply an assassin. In his own mind, he's a samurai, who chooses to live by an ancient code. Ghost Dog meditates daily upon death and considers himself to be dead, as advised by Yamamoto Tsunetomo's Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai. (Excerpts from the text appear periodically on the screen, to be read aloud by Whitaker in deep Jersey City tones.) He also swears loyalty to a single master: Louie (John Tormey), the midlevel mobster who once saved his life.
But enough about plot. You might want to know, for example, that Ghost Dog, following orders, murders a gangster who has seduced the crime lord's beautiful daughter (Tricia Vessey). Yet the hit itself is surely less important than the way the daughter lolls about the murder scene in a red negligee and Louise Brooks hairdo, watching a Betty Boop cartoon on TV while reading a translation of Rashomon. "You can have it. I'm finished with it," she tells Ghost Dog in a Boop-like whisper, as he lowers his laser gunsight and withdraws. It's also interesting, though not very, that an assistant crime boss, Sonny (Cliff Gorman), subsequently orders Louie to murder Ghost Dog. But what matters in that scene is surely not the plot point but the way that four gangsters crowd around a table for two in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant. The crime boss (Henry Silva) looks as if he just came back from the taxidermist; the consigliere (Gene Ruffini) speaks in paroxysms, as if controlled by an on-off switch; and Sonny, to prove he understands something about Ghost Dog, performs an impromptu rap.
Ghost Dog does like his music. But his taste is more eclectic than Sonny's, his use of sound more meditative, as when he drives around Jersey City at night, cocooned in the luxury of a stolen car. Through its windshield, the low-rise storefronts and empty lots drift by like dream images; traffic lights and tail lights blink and glow, while the music on the CD player soothes Ghost Dog, and you, into a trance.
Later in the film, there will be reggae and saxophone wails. But in the first of the drive-by-night scenes, the one that sets the tone, Ghost Dog listens to a hip-hop cut by the composer of the movie's score, The RZA. The music is insinuating, sinuous, lulling but off-kilter, mixing a dissonant whistle (in the style of Ennio Morricone) over an in-out beat. The words? They're about the loss of Africa, the loss of culture, the loss of self: the chant of a warrior who's been stripped to his core. Listen, and look at Ghost Dog's face: the drooping left eyelid (perhaps caused by a beating), the scars, the watchfulness, the patience. When Forest Whitaker silently looks about himself, you always see that his mind is at work; but when he looks about as Ghost Dog, you realize you could never guess his thoughts. This is the larger-than-life aspect of the character. Come close, and you begin to think of all the black men in slums who have reinvented themselves from the ground up, becoming everything from kung fu masters to the Messenger of Allah. Maybe a samurai hit man is not so improbable.
Then again, there's nothing heroic about the way Ghost Dog reholsters his gun, cutting it through the air three times like a sword. In this aspect, the character is a mere invention, formed by the filmmaker to serve and amuse. Ghost Dog serves by helping Jarmusch recapitulate themes and motifs from his earlier films: the nocturnal car ride (Night on Earth), the corpse who walks and kills (Dead Man), the fascination with Japan (Stranger than Paradise, Mystery Train), the aspiration to be hip (all scenes involving the late Screamin' Jay Hawkins). Ghost Dog amuses by being a parody of other movie characters, many of whom were already third-generation copies.