Dom Hemingway begins with a three-minute monologue about the title character’s penis. Dom, as played by Jude Law, uses a number of outrageous superlatives to describe his own penis as a paragon of art and nature, and he goes on for three straight minutes. While he’s getting a blowjob in prison. This is seriously, literally, the first three minutes of the film. I know. I timed it.
I open this review as the movie opens, because it’s as good an introduction to the film and the character as any I can think of. It shows a perverse and darkly funny kind of wit that pervades the entire movie. Except when it doesn’t. I’ll explain.
Dom Hemingway is a safecracker who got caught in the middle of a heist. Instead of testifying in return for a lighter sentence, he kept his mouth shut and spent twelve years in prison. Naturally, Dom missed out on a lot while he was in prison. For instance, he missed out on his daughter’s adolescent years, he was behind bars while his wife divorced him and remarried, and he wasn’t there when his wife died of cancer.
So Dom gets out of prison and what’s the first thing he does? He tracks down the man who married his ex-wife to beat four years of grade school out of his brain. And then Dom bites the guy’s ear off for good measure. I’ll remind you that beating a man half to death is the very first thing Dom does after getting out of prison. Then he goes to a pub and says that he has anger management issues, like NO SHIT, SHERLOCK.
Through the first act, we see that Dom is a true force of nature. He does whatever he wants according to whatever thought is going through his head at the time, and no one tries to get in his way because he’s such a loud and violent psychopath. He’s not the least bit sympathetic, of course, but the character is so unpredictable and so adept with vile curses that he’s incredibly entertaining to watch. I simply couldn’t take my eyes off of Jude Law through a single moment of the running time, and that isn’t because of the ugly facial hair he’s sporting here.
But again, the character isn’t remotely sympathetic. Remember that, it’s going to hurt later.
Moving on, when Dom gets out of prison, the second thing he does is to go visit Mr. Ivan Fontaine (Demian Bichir), the very same kingpin Dom was working for when he got caught. Naturally, after losing twelve years of his life because he wouldn’t implicate Fontaine, Dom is looking for compensation. And that goes well enough, until it doesn’t. Suffice to say that criminals aren’t necessarily the type to keep their word. Who knew?
Long story short (too late!), Dom is back on the streets with no home and nothing in his pockets but a lighter and half a pack of cigarettes. So he goes to Evelyn, his daughter, played by Emilia Clarke (yes, that Emilia Clarke). Turns out that she’s shacked up with a Senegalese boyfriend (Hugh, played by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) and they’re raising a son together (Jawara, played by newcomer Jordan Nash). Oh, and did I mention that Evelyn hates her father so much that she won’t even look at him? Well, I guess that goes without saying.
Basically, Dom is stranded between two worlds because neither wants anything to do with him. After a lifetime of hard drinking and unrestrained violence, followed by twelve years of lost time, it seems like everyone on the planet has a grudge against Dom. The guy just wants to get his life back on straight, and no one will give him a chance. It’s a very sympathetic place to be in. And therein lies the problem.
When the movie started out, I enjoyed watching Dom’s outrageous behavior in large part because I didn’t have to worry about finding empathy for him. The character is so impossible to redeem that when the film switches gears and tries to put him on a course toward redemption, it doesn’t remotely work. Not only does it make for a jarring change in tone, but it goes entirely against everything the character’s done and everything he continues to do.
See, every time Dom goes to some crime lord asking for a job or for money, he acts like a massive dickhead. He goes right up to the faces of hardened killers and gives them hundreds of lengthy, profanity-laden reasons why Dom should get a bullet in his big fat mouth. Though it’s entertaining to watch, it doesn’t exactly inspire compassion when Dom gets screwed over. Really, Dom screams into Fontaine’s face for something like five minutes, crashes Fontaine’s car while driving drunk off his ass, and Dom gets upset because his payment of several thousand pounds has been denied? Are you kidding me?
Then again, Dom knows that he’s a fuckup. He knows that he’s a terrible person that no decent person would want to be around, and he really does want to do right by his friends and family. Also, Dom has the good sense to try and tone his behavior down around his daughter and grandson, so that’s a point in his favor. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that however Dom may want to change his ways, he never seems to gain the ability. Though a lot of that has to do with his friends and family refusing to offer him a chance, because Dom is that much of an egotistical asshat.
You can see why this whole redemption angle doesn’t quite work.
When Dom Hemingway focuses on the crass, witty, curse-laden antics of its main character, the film works like a charm. But when the narrative tries to put Dom back on the straight and narrow, the morality ties itself into knots and the whole thing falls apart. It tries to be a pitch-black comedy while also being a sugary-sweet heartwarmer, and that’s a tremendously difficult balancing act that this movie completely fails at.
That said, Jude Law’s performance here is so incredible that he almost — almost — gets the dichotomy to work through sheer talent and charisma. Throw in a delightful “straight man” performance from Richard E. Grant and some wonderfully stylish writing/direction from Richard Shepard, and you’ve got a film that’s worth a rental at least.
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