Consider Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) as a very promiscuous romance picture above anything else—even if not all of its many objects of affection are what you might call properly human and there is no love interest on the scene. There is first and foremost among the director’s most treasured love objects the shape-shifting face of Forest Whitaker. There are also the swaggerful gait and deceptive bulk of Whitaker on deck to draw out Jarmusch’s and the audience’s warmest and tenderest feelings toward the trickster-actor (who has made a career out of seducing us with his open woundedness and surprising us with his hidden volatility), but let’s begin with that face. Sir Michael Caine has told us that good screen acting is all about the eyes. Sir Laurence Olivier, when asked what was the most important quality for an actor to have, replied, “Physical strength.”
Whitaker’s man-strong eyes are a Technicolor dream machine for any director whose protagonist is a mercurial, silent hulk of an antihero. And most especially for the director of Ghost Dog, whose script requires his leading man to convincingly deliver stoic savant, vulnerable puppy dog, self-possessed everyman, effortless charmer of precocious but wary hood children, shark-eyed triple-tap professional assassin.
Whitaker is the type of artful dodger who can hit all of those notes in rapid-eye-movement succession without blinking twice. Many first saw this in Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money (1986); in retrospect, Whitaker’s mesmerizing four-minute Cheshire-cat hustle of Paul Newman’s Fast Eddie dims the memory of what happens afterward in that film. As Ghost Dog, Whitaker authoritatively voice-over-reads from Jarmusch’s literary crush for the film, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai—a volume compiled from eighteenth-century commentaries on Bushido (the warrior’s code) by a samurai-nostalgic clerk turned monk, Yamamoto Tsunetomo, as told to a fellow clerk, Tashiro Tsuramoto, and translated in 1979 by William Scott Wilson, a well-respected interpreter of Japanese literature.
“Jarmusch uses Ghost Dog to up his game and rifle through three genres of which he’s enamored at once: samurai, Italian American gangster, and blaxploitation.”
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