If you always thought Jude Law was a neat buttoned-down lad like the square journalist he plays in The Grand Budapest Hotel or Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes films, get ready for a bit of a shake up. As the titular character in director Richard Shepard’s British gangland flick Dom Hemingway, he’s something of a cockney bull akin to Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday, Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast, and even more so, the Kemp brothers in The Krays. In short, he’s feral, unhinged, and lethal, but that’s not to say Law’s daunting turn makes the film worthy of inclusion in that pantheon of great British mob dramas.
The film opens energetically enough, with Law’s Hemingway barking out poetic praise for his “cock.” Besides the brutish, self-congratulatory perversions that fall from his mouth, the most stark realization is that Law’s boyish good looks are nowhere to be found. Salvos of saliva fly from his pursing lips, his face is puffy and scarred, and his teeth are stained and grilled. Even his signature baby blues seem dull and demonic.
As the camera slowly pulls out, we see Dom in a prison cell where he’s getting some lip service of his own. He’s shortly thereafter released, capping a 12-year stint behind bars — and the real start of the movie. But if you think the dozen years he spent incarcerated calmed the convict, think again. Dom immediately sets out to find the guy who married his ex-wife and saw her through a protracted battle with cancer and ultimately her internment. Most would hail such actions as caring, even saintly, but not Dom: he wants to punish the bloke for sleeping with his wife, ex or not.
Clearly Dom’s got severe anger issues and likes to hit the bottle hard, but the film seems more like vignettes about Dom’s time after he serves, which leaves the plot wanting. We’re left to piece together much of Dom’s life — past and present. Characters enter, like Mr. Fontaine (Demian Bichir), the Russian kingpin responsible for Dom’s jail time and who sounds more like the “Most Interesting Man in the World” than an Eastern Bloc strongman. And throughout the film’s entirety it is never explicitly said why Dom went to jail; we just assume it’s for safe cracking and refusing to rat out his boss.
On a trip to Fontaine’s French villa, Dom wants a big payout and a toss with the boss’s toothsome moll (Madalina Diana Ghenea) for his silence. His prevalence for the bottle and, in turn, violence is highlighted during the stay, but the French voyage also unfolds with some deft twists and surprises. There’s still hope for the film. But then Shepard begins to squeeze a little too much from his dark character study, and that hope disappears. The pissing contests become redundant and filled with sawdust-stilted dialogue.
The flick jumps back to the UK, where Dom tries to reconnect with his daughter (Emilia Clarke, Daenerys Targaryen on Game of Thrones), who he hasn’t seen since she was waist high. It’s the one time Dom bears any genuine trepidation, and while he yearns to make amends, he’s never sober long enough to get the apology off his chest.
Not much falls Dom’s way, which given his proclivity for self indulgence, isn’t surprising. He’s a safecracker by trade, but technology and time have passed him by and most of his employment contacts are either dead or not taking his call. The one loyal friend he has in his back pocket, Dickie (a wonderfully foppish Richard E. Grant), happens to be just another lowly member of London’s criminal underworld, rudderless and inert as Dom. He’s also newly missing a hand.
The bulk of what holds Dom Hemingway back lies in the overwrought contrivances and lack of plot articulation. Shepard, who wrote as well as directed, wishes fervently to be Quentin Tarantino, and while he can cast some snappy visuals and cut together a few nifty, dark vignettes, there’s too much artless roundabouts in between. The moments of true revelation too, feel obligatory and insincere, and sometimes Dom’s so inexplicably mercurial and explosive, you wonder if he shouldn’t be treated for bipolar disorder. The hubristic arrogance begins to take its toll as well. At each turn, Dickie tries to rein Dom in, but Dom just puffs his chest and does what he does as Dickie stands by and shakes his head. Dickie’s a lifer, in it for better or worse, but for those outside and looking in, Dom’s a ticking time bomb: amusing for a while, but unjustifiably self-serving and repugnant over the long haul.
And it’s too bad, too, because the actors really put it on the line. Law’s never demonstrated such range or grimy grit, and Grant, who’s made some recent splashes on TV in Downton Abbey and Girls, is subliminally droll as the weary voice of reason.
It’s not all for naught however; there’s clearly something rich inside Dom Hemingway that just doesn’t get mined properly. Shepard’s use of popular era music including the Alarm, Big Country, and the Pixies is spot on and infectious, and there’s no denying the value of Law and Grant. To whomever helms the next great nasty British crime drama, be sure to have Law and Grant on your speed dial.