Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai [1999]

The Limey Steven Soderbergh's follow-up to his sexy thriller Out of Sight is an equally stylish but far more austere crime drama, a work of memory that mixes flashbacks, flashforwards, and ruminations on the present into an invigorating cinematic quilt. Terence Stamp is Wilson, an aging cockney criminal fresh out of prison who flies to Los Angeles to search for his daughter's killer. She died in a car wreck, but he suspects that her lover, a music industry mogul named Valentine (Peter Fonda), knows more than he's telling. Wilson is a fish out of water indeed, a cool, cruel London thug on the airy, sun-bright street of L.A., a silver-haired criminal taking on street punks and hit men with the relentless drive of a man possessed. It's like Get Carter channeled through Point Blank, a hard-edged revenge thriller steeped in sorrow and regret, trading the warmth of Out of Sight's romantic heat for a more contemplative remove. Fonda beautifully plays off his cinematic history of 1960s hippies and rebels as a nervous, cowardly millionaire sellout in white cotton peasant shirts and a deep California tan. Luiz Guzman and Lesley Ann Warren costar as Wilson's "adopted" guides through modern L.A., and Barry Newman is excellent as Valentine's tough, terse head of security, another aging pro blindsided by Wilson's relentless single-mindedness. Soderbergh quotes from Ken Loach's 1967 film Poor Cow (sadly not available on video in the U.S.) for Wilson's flashbacks as a fresh-faced teenage thug. --Sean Axmaker Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai Forest Whitaker makes an unlikely modern samurai with his laser-sighted pistols, shabby street clothes, and oddly graceful gait--but then Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is an unusual film. Quirky, contemplative, and at times absurd, it's just the kind offbeat vision we've come to expect from the fiercely independent Jim Jarmusch (Stranger than Paradise, Dead Man). Whitaker is Ghost Dog, a mysterious New York hit man who lives simply on a tenement rooftop and follows a code of behavior outlined in Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai (passages of this book are interspersed throughout the film). When the local mob marks him for death in a complicated code of Mafiosi-style honor, Ghost Dog sends a cryptic message to his foes. "That's poetry. The poetry of war," remarks mobster Henry Silva, with sudden respect upon reading the verse. He could be describing the ethereal beauty of Jarmusch's vision, full of wonderful imagery (a night drive across town seems to float in time) and off-center humor. Though it briefly stalls in a series of assassinations (Jarmusch is no action director), it settles back into character-driven drama in a quietly epic showdown, equal parts samurai adventure, spaghetti western, and existential crime movie. The film is likely too unconventional and offbeat for general audiences, but cult-movie buffs and Jarmusch fans will appreciate his idiosyncratic vision. He finds a strange sense of honor in the clash of Old World traditions, and salutes his heroes with a skewed but sincere respect. --Sean Axmaker

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