Dom Hemingway opens with Jude Law (I Heart Huckabees) offering a profane, passionate monologue about the glory of his cock. Towards the end, he offers a similarly-structured, equally profane monologue about his commitment to fixing his relationship with his estranged daughter Evelyn (Emilia Clarke, Game of Thrones). That more or less summarizes the tale the film serves up: it's the story of an unapologetically filthy rascal becoming a semi-apologetic filthy rascal. It's a smaller shift than most cinematic redemption stories serve up, but also a more believable one. People rarely change overnight, but sometimes they slowly improve themselves, day by day, piece by piece.
Our story begins with Dom being released from prison after twelve years. Immediately after his release, he reunites with his old pal Dickie (Richard E. Grant, Withnail and I) and travels to the French countryside to seek payment from Ivan Fontaine (Demian Bechir, The Hateful Eight), the powerful mob boss Dom refused to rat out. Ivan is prepared to pay, but things start going south rather quickly: Dom is so jealous of Ivan's professional success that he begins hurling spiteful insults towards his former employer before getting paid.
It quickly becomes apparent that Dom is almost always going to behave badly, and that the only question is whether his behavior will be terrible enough to completely wreck the relationship he's in or the good time he's having. It's an enjoyably committed piece of unhinged lunacy from Law, serving up a turned-up-to-11 cockney accent (“Oh, my head is frobbin'. It's f---ing frobbin', Dickie!”) and stomping through the movie like a bull in a china shop. Law has always been a better actor than his blandly handsome looks suggested, and that's becoming more apparent as that handsomeness is starting to fade and Law is able to lose himself in colorful roles like this one (see also: his turn as the grimy submarine captain in Black Sea).
The perpetually fretful, frowning visage of Richard E. Grant provides a consistently amusing bit of counterpoint to Law's theatrics. Time after time, poor Dickie looks torn between trying to interrupt Dom's latest spurt of awful behavior or crawling under the table in a moment of desperate self-preservation. Bechir's turn is a similarly enjoyable piece of counterpoint – he's as polite and distinguished as Dom is vulgar and disheveled, but you sense the man's capacity for violence lurking beneath the surface. The women of the film – Clarke as the wary daughter, Kerry Condon (Better Call Saul) as a woman who has a life-changing encounter with Dom and Madalina Diana Ghenea (Youth) as Ivan's femme fatale-ish girlfriend – never seem particularly well-drawn, but that (usually) seems like a natural consequence of the fact that the film is told from the perspective of a man who (usually) sees women as playthings.
While the film's first half is largely a riotous comedy of misbehavior, things turn a little more complicated later, as Dom begins to take stock of what really matters in life. While the second half isn't quite as consistently snappy or amusing as the first (particularly during a safe-cracking sequence that isn't quite as entertaining as the filmmakers seem to think it is), things never turn as soggy as you fear they might.
The film was written and directed by Richard Shepard, and often feels like a companion piece to the director's funny, surprisingly soulful The Matador. That film told another story of a colorful criminal who slowly works his way towards a form of salvation. In both cases, Shepard remains committed to ensuring that A) pathos never gets in the way of a good joke and B) the fine-tuned characterization of the salty protagonist is never compromised. By the time we fade out, Dom isn't necessarily in a better place, but he's making an effort to get there. Will it last? Maybe not. Probably not. But he's trying, and that's more than he's ever done before.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 95 minutes
Release Year: 2014