Movies about low-life gangsters have always been a staple of the British film industry, but apart from rare cases (Guy Ritchie’s early efforts being the most notable examples), most haven’t made the Atlantic crossing. Richard Shepard’s “Dom Hemingway” is the exception. It shares some of the mood, energy and verbal explosiveness of Ritchie’s “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch” but isn’t nearly as nasty, and adds to the mix a degree of star power in Jude Law, who plays the volatile title character, a safe-cracker just released from a stint in the pen.
But “Hemingway” isn’t a caper story—it’s a character sketch of a loquacious, explosive fellow who wants instant gratification after spending twelve years in lockup—along with the share of the loot from his last job owed him by the partners he protected by refusing to snitch on them. His first appearance is via a long rant, shot in a single take, while he’s still behind bars—a coarse, preening cascade of self-absorbed rhapsodizing about his penis that will send the prudish back into the lobby. Law delivers the soliloquy with amazing energy, after which he gets news of his release—and struts out of prison an overweight bantam rooster of a man with a slight paunch and a receding hairline but no lack of determination.
Picked up by his old pal Dickie (Richard E. Grant, a great second banana), Dom has one task to perform—beating up a poor schlub who made the mistake of getting it on with Hemingway’s (now dead) wife while he was in the slammer, something he does with relish—before spending three days on a monumental bender paid for by the man Dickie then takes him to see—crime lord Fontaine (Demian Bichir, whose cool malice works nicely even though he never begins to approximate the Russian he’s said to be). Fontaine has a villa in France, and he welcomes Dom there with what passes for genuine hospitality among the gangland set, though Hemingway’s habit of veering into rhetorical tirades at the slightest provocation and of letting his eye travel in the direction of Fontaine’s svelte girlfriend Paolina (Madalina Ghenea) could prove fatal.
Still, Fontaine gives Hemingway his share from their twelve-year old heist, along with a nice bonus for his long silence, and all seems well until he loses it during a night of drunken revelry that turns out badly for a number of characters. Returning to England, he searches out an old comrade in crime named Lestor, but instead finds the man’s son (Jumayn Hunter), who challenges him to a bet regarding his safecracking abilities. But the sequence with Lestor is just the appetizer for the script’s true final-act concern: Dom’s determination to make amends to his estranged daughter Evelyn (Emilia Clarke), who happens to have an African boyfriend, Hugh (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) who’s as even-tempered as Hemingway isn’t, as well as a darling, wide-eyed little son called Jawara (Jordan Nash). But Evelyn isn’t at all anxious to make up with the man she feels deserted her and her mother.
There really isn’t much to “Dom Hemingway” beyond Law’s histrionic, oversized performance, the verbal flights that Shepard has constructed for him, and Grant’s owlishly hilarious demeanor as he observes Dom’s wild antics—though the look of the picture, with its extravagant costumes and equally striking production design (especially in the large photographs of monkeys, blown up from prints by Jill Greenberg, that adorn the walls of Fontaine’s elegant sitting-room), certainly has its moments. And toward the close, it must be said, the picture slides downhill with a coincidence that restores Dom’s fortunes somewhat and a mawkish reconciliation with Evelyn and her son at his wife’s grave.
The result is a picture that’s enjoyable enough as an exercise in verbal dexterity, as well as a star vehicle for Law, who definitely does break out of the straitjacket of bland leading-man roles with this turn. And it’s always fun to watch Grant even when he’s doing nothing, which is his assigned task for most of the running-time (though there’s one delicious scene when he explains why he always wears a glove). Overall, though, “Dom Hemingway” is like cinematic cotton candy—it does the job moment to moment, but proves utterly evanescent, dissipating even before the final credits roll. Still, though it’s nothing more than a lark, it’s one more engaging than most.