If the point of prison is to reform, then the experience hasn’t done Dom Hemingway much good. Judging by Jude Law’s opening monologue — a long, colorful ode to his macho character’s manhood, delivered under highly ironic circumstances — the hotheaded safe-cracker hasn’t exactly cooled down in the clink. Headed for a domestic release from Fox Searchlight next April, “Dom Hemingway” tags along for the rocky readjustment period the ex-con faces after paying his debt to society, a blustery whirlwind of activity that, once the dust settles, serves mostly as scenery for Law’s endearingly loquacious character to devour. Pic should be a hit at home, where it opens Nov. 8, and more of a specialty item Stateside, though the role could spell a comeback for its star.
“12 Years Is a Long Time” reads the first of several laugh-out-loud chapter cards at the story’s outset, and though it refers to the duration of Dom’s sentence, it also happens to be the amount of time since Law and then-wife Sadie Frost botched their attempt at making a Guy Ritchie knock-off with “Love, Honor and Obey.” Law has long wanted to leave his mark on the British gangster genre, and his patience pays off in this case, as “Dom Hemingway” — a far stronger piece of material from “The Matador” writer-director Richard Shepard — gives him a chance to sink his teeth into one of the meatiest personalities in a genre known for larger-than-life types.
The project also benefits from the interval of time, now that the onetime pretty boy looks a bit more bedraggled, his receding hairline matched by forehead creases and lamb-chop facial hair. Law’s safe-cracking character has spent his better years behind bars, though he hasn’t lost his touch, as demonstrated in a scene where he wagers those family jewels of which he’s so proud that he can open a newfangled digital safe in less than 10 minutes.
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As Brit-con movies go, “Dom Hemingway” feels like an extension of Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Bronson,” though in contrast with Tom Hardy’s hyper-aggressive criminal, Law brings a necessary weariness to this slightly more reined-in figure. Yes, the man tries to make up for 12 years with three days of hookers, booze and blow, though both director and star show far more restraint, reducing what might have been an extravagant montage to a few quick shots and bringing the focus back around to language.
He may strut, bow-legged with hips thrust forward like a cowboy or porn star, and he may launch into long tirades blue enough to make Tarantino blush, but Dom Hemingway is mostly talk — and so is the movie that bears his name. Conceived in the wonderfully baroque vein of British dramatist Martin McDonagh, Shepard’s dialogue comes fast and dense, layered with expletives and false bravado as Dom screams his demands at Russian crime boss Mr. Fontaine (Demian Bichir, terrific, but not an ounce Russian), requesting a round with the big man’s money-hungry moll (Romanian model Madalina Diana Ghenea, a real traffic-stopper) as a “present” for keeping his silence.
The pic also defies its own genre in the sense that most audiences would expect Dom either to seek some sort of payback for his prison time (the first half of the film) or to jump right back into crime — the assumed goal behind his awkward reconciliation with nightclub kingpin Lestor (Jumayn Hunter) in the second half. But all this flashy illicit activity merely serves as a smokescreen for the character’s true agenda: patching things up with Evelyn (“Game of Thrones’” Emilia Clarke), the daughter he abandoned when he refused to rat on his employer so many years ago. Evelyn represents the thing that separates Dom from Hardy’s Charles Bronson, the motivation to get his temper in check and return to the real world.
As in “The Matador,” Shepard balances a livelier-than-life script with striking, super-saturated images, which makes the film feel bigger than it is. He milks laughs from Dom’s unfiltered reaction to his own surroundings, such as Mr. Fontaine’s art collection or Lestor’s garish nightclub, and uses playful editing to create abruptly amusing twists on seemingly familiar situations, as when a drunken late-night joyride in Mr. Fontaine’s Rolls Royce serves as the first reversal in a succession of outrageous fortune shifts. Dana Congdon’s cutting effectively gives the impression of a magician doing card tricks: Just like Dom, the film always has something more up its sleeve.