When his latest hit is mildly compromised by the presence of a mob boss' daughter (Vessey), who lends him a book, Rashomon, after he has shot her lover, Ghost Dog (Whitaker) becomes the quarry as ageing gangster Louie's (Tormey) mostly geriatric hood pals come after him. Naturally he turns the tables, though he is wont to be distracted by a robin perching on his rifle barrel.
Jim Jarmusch makes films which can be classed as comedies, though the characters never so much as crack a smile and indeed take every little thing with the utmost seriousness, not to say solemnity. Like Dead Man, Jarmusch's shot at the Western, Ghost Dog borrows the shape of a conventional genre movie but piles oddity upon absurdity to such an extent that you have to assume it takes place in an emptier universe next door, hence no one sees the joke.
Borrowing heavily from Jean-Pierre Melville's classic Le Samourai, and expounding at length on the parallel between hit man and Japanese swordsman which Melville was content to leave to the title, the film introduces us to Ghost Dog (Whitaker), a bear-like assassin-cum-pigeon fancier. Ghost Dog lives in a shack on a roof, communicating with his mafioso "master" Louie (Tormey) via messenger pigeon, and spends his off-hours studying bushido (the samurai code of honour), hanging out in the park with his ice cream man best friend (Bankole) - with whom he does not share a common language - and listening to fairly mellow rap.
The film is full of moments of stifled hilarity, with long-time movie villains Cliff Gorman and Henry Silva especially wry as mafia men with unexpected enthusiasms (Gorman likes rap), and apart from the slobbish, inept Louie, everyone in the cast seems intent on out-weirding everyone else.
Like Dead Man, it has enough gunplay and style to pass as an upmarket video rental gun pic, but the real action is in the pauses, when Whitaker is on screen doing nothing in an extremely expressive manner. If you don't like Jarmusch, this won't convert you, but if you're prepared to synch with his mindset there's wry amusement to be had.