Dom Hemingway (Jude Law) is an angry man. He’s just been released from prison after serving a 12-year stretch as a fall guy for his gangster boss Mr. Fontaine (Demian Bichir). Dom’s been a good soldier, he’s kept his mouth shut. After twelve years, Dom has a lot to say. And he does, loudly, a lot, for the entirety of the film’s 93 minute running time. The blustery loquaciousness of Dom Hemingway, delivered by Law in a thick Cockney accent (there is not a proper “th” sound to be found), is established immediately with a long monologue, exalting the virtues of his own prodigious member. If Dom Hemingway were a ’30s musical, it would have begun with a spinning newspaper headline: “Cocky Cockney Declares Own Cock Tops.” Even Deadwood‘s Al Swearengen would be jealous of this mid-head soliloquy.
Reuniting with his one-handed former con buddy Dickie (a leisure suited Richard E. Grant), Dom has two goals: get the money Fontaine owes him for not ratting, and find the daughter whose entire adolescence he missed while incarcerated (Game of Thrones‘ Emilia Clarke). Dom’s money first, daughter second philosophy reflects the larger preoccupation of the film: raucous debauchery in the first half, sober soul-searching in the second. The film’s about-face, precipitated by a cartoonishly staged car crash, is one of several unbelievable and intense tonal shifts. Writer/director Richard Shepard (The Matador) writes with his own amusement in mind, with little concern for traditional storytelling. The result is a film that zigzags from outrageous comedy to cloying pathos (Dom even delivers a monologue at his dead wife’s tombstone!), in which the supporting characters drop in and out at a whim, and important plot points are delivered by eye-rollingly convenient deus ex machina.
Shepard is fully in love with Dom, and lets him run on, endlessly, about anything and everything. The vamping, one-man-showiness of Dom Hemingway is not unique to the Brit-con genre, from Guy Ritchie protagonists shouting directly into the camera, to Nicolas Winding Refn’s uproarious thug cabaret, Bronson. The latter, braced by Tom Hardy’s star-making performance, is Shepard’s most obvious influence here. Like Hardy, Jude Law gained a significant amount of muscle for the role, creating a top-heavy goon who forever seems about to tip over from the weight of his own rage. Busting out of his three-piece suits and bracketed by a set of impressive mutton chops, Law’s Dom guzzles pints, bruises his knuckles on the jaws of lesser men, and grins with the kind of wolfish confidence that only a three-day bender with hookers and blow can induce.
While Jude Law has built a career on being a fairly good actor of extraordinary man-prettiness, like Brad Pitt, the older and less extraordinarily man-pretty Law becomes, the more interesting his work. (Even with a receding hairline, 30 extra lbs. and a set of gold teeth, Law’s Dom is never unattractive.) If only the film gave Dom more to do than strut about. Where the film falters is in the meandering writing, never in Law’s performance, which is only ever as unhinged and maniac as the script dictates.
The stylistic excess of Dom Hemingway burns off after about an hour. Too many scenes drag on far too long, buoyed only by the charms of Law’s performance as Dom tries to claw his way back to a normal life. A late set piece in a nightclub where Dom foolishly pledges to crack a state-of-the-art safe in under ten minutes, drags on ad nauseam. Increasingly, Dom’s pathetic desperation in the face of ceaseless disappointments reflect the flaccid direction of the film itself. The derivative nature of Dom Hemingway‘s mouthy, swaggering gangster archetype combines with the aimlessness of the script to create a character piece that goes nowhere, except everywhere we’ve already been.