He's a man in black, alone but not lonely, pursuing a treacherous trade, doing business with lethal idiots who understand his methods but not his magic. He is Ghost Dog, a philosophical black gunman who runs afoul of the mobsters who employ him in Jim Jarmusch's niftily quirky Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. And yes, he is Jarmusch as well-a filmmaker who, since his 1984 Stranger Than Paradise, has pretty much defined the spirit of the truly independent American film. Ghost Dog is talking about himself and his Mafia contact, but he might be speaking of Jarmusch when he says, "Me and him, we're from different ancient tribes. And we're both almost extinct." The film-what its maker calls "a gangster, hip-hop, samurai eastern western"-is about the gang that couldn't shoot straight and the killer for hire who can't stop shooting. The gang is a boneyard of Mafia dinosaurs in North Jersey (Tony Soprano's turf). They stare numbly at old cartoons and are months behind in the rent for their clubhouse. Next to them, Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) is both modern and ageless. His cyber-age artillery and acute aim make him the ideal hit man. Between gigs he plays hip-hop CDs in whatever car he has stolen. Yet this Ghost Doggy Dogg lives by the precepts in the classic Hagakure: The Way of the Samurai. He has sworn loyalty to the Mafia man (John Tormey) who saved his life-though he knows that loyalty may cost him that life. With its snazzy murders and a cooler-than-Ice score (by RZA of Wu-Tang Clan), Ghost Dog runs a serious risk of being its director's first hit. That would be nice, because this is his most compelling film and because it's still profoundly weird, a typical Jar-mush of genre bending and ethnic blending, a grafting of European modernism and Japanese mysticism onto an American gangster movie. Caught in this crossfire of the contemplative and the violent, the viewer is kept as off-guard as most of the killers in the film. A hit would also be a welcome change for Jarmusch, 47, whose oddness and integrity have won him international acclaim but whose films have never caused box-office stampedes in the U.S. (Dead Man, his 1995 Johnny Depp western, made about as much in France as it did in America.) He has scrambled for financing from French and Japanese sources and cast his all-American movies with actors from all over. It would be a shame if he were remembered only for casting Roberto Benigni in his first English-language features (Down by Law and Night on Earth) or for being the hippest-looking director in indie cinema. His films aren't brisk and ingratiating-calling cards for Hollywood careers. He won't be making Good Will Hunting or Three Kings.
He seems content or resigned to be a true independent. "I don't know what 'indie film' means anymore," he says. "The term has been usurped as a marketing device. The name is like alternative music-they labeled it to make it mainstream. To me, independent film means that the people making the film love cinema as a beautiful form of expression and make the creative decisions without having market analysis to decide what the audience wants the product to be. After all, the beauty of a film is that when you go into a theater, you enter a world, and you have no idea where it's going to take you. Like a piece of music, it sweeps you along in its own rhythm and its own time." Ghost Dog finds its behavioral rhythm in the commanding stillness and loping gait of Whitaker, the star of Bird and director of Waiting to Exhale, who perfectly embodies Jarmusch's anachronistic antihero. The director knew that Whitaker had nailed the part one day when they met to talk about a complex swordplay scene on Ghost Dog's roof. "So we're walking from my loft in the east Bowery to East River Park," Jarmusch recalls. "Forest has his sword in his knapsack. We get to the park, and he says, 'Let me just show you a few things I've been working on.' He takes out this sword and starts all these moves, like perfect, like he'd been studying them for years-which is very Forest-like, and Ghost Dog-like, not to tell me that but to show me at the moment when it was necessary. There are some people in the park looking at Forest and going, 'Damn, a samurai!' I'm surprised Mayor Giuliani's guys didn't come and sweep him away." Be true to your code. Show flash and substance. Find humor within wonder. That's Ghost Dog. That's Jim Jarmusch.
-Reported by Georgia Harbison/New York