March 10, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

”Every day, without fail, one should consider himself as dead.” Thus reads a passage in the 18th-century Japanese text that the hulking hitman Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) totes everywhere. While this mantra puts him in synch with previous Jim Jarmusch heroes, it’s a pleasure to report that Ghost Dog brings the minimalist director who found fame with 1984’s Stranger Than Paradise back to the land of the living.

Acting as a lone warrior for the Jersey hood who once saved his life, Ghost Dog finds himself cutting a bloody Zen swath up the chain of command to the godfather himself. Jarmusch, meanwhile, honors such cinematic forebears as Sergio Leone Westerns and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai even as he smears a brooding rap soundtrack (from Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA) all over Tony Soprano’s turf. The result has the dingy grace of pigeons flying across an urban wasteland.

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