Grade: B-

I’ve never been much enamoured of the films of Jim Jarmusch,
which have always seemed to me both precious and pretentious–
the 1995 debacle “Dead Man,” with its funereal pacing and
pointless plotting, was a particular chore to sit through. But
his new effort comes as quite a delightful surprise, a
characteristically deliberate but singularly amusing shaggy-
dog tale about a martial arts expert steeped in the ethos of
the samurai, who, through pure chance, has become indebted to
Louie, a member of the old Mafia (John Tormey). Ghost Dog, as
the enigmatic guy calls himself, serves Louie as an anonymous
but very proficient hitman, until in one job he kills made man
Handsome Frank (Richard Portnow), leading the mob bosses to
demand that the assassin himself be rubbed out. This brings
the hero into open war with the whole organization, which
puts his contact Louie in a difficult situation.

Jarmusch’s picture includes some action (in which, it must be
admitted, Whitaker doesn’t come across as especially proficient),
but its strength lies not in the plot, which is frankly absurd
and uninteresting, but in the oddball characterizations and
unlikely relationships which the writer-director fashions
within it. Ghost Dog’s friendship with a Haitian ice-cream
salesman (Isaach de Bankole), for example, is both warm and
humorous, and the tie between him and Louie is equally
intriguing. The Mafia characters, moreover, are portrayed as
amusingly over-the-hill, and with pros like Cliff Gorman and
Henry Silva playing them, and making brilliant use of pauses,
silences and looks of gloomy incredulity in the process, they
come across as ridiculous icons of a bygone era.

Splendid work from character actors and occasional nuggets of
gemlike dialogue aren’t enough, of course, to make “Ghost Dog”
work completely. As is true of all Jarmusch’s pictures, the
direction is still flaccid, and there are times when its
combination of gangster parody, eastern mysticism and laid-back
western irony seems merely affected.

But in this instance the eccentric creator’s efforts are
successful more often than not. “Ghost Dog: The Way of the
Samurai” is a peculiar piece, to be sure, but here the
peculiarity seems fresh and amusing rather than forced and
tiresome. It’s far from a perfect picture, but if approached
with a degree of tolerance its deadpan humor should generate
quite a few smiles.