Jude Law leaves his pretty-boy past behind him to play a middle-aged mobster in a movie that's not always worthy of his exertions
It's hard to think of another Hollywood star who has leaned into middle age with as much enthusiastic opportunism as Jude Law. In his twenties, Law was cast as a genetically flawless specimen in “Gattaca” and as a WASPy Adonis in “The Talented Mr. Ripley”; in both films, he was the golden boy whom the striving outsider protagonist wants to become.
That meant he was the supporting actor, the role he's occupied for most of his career. Since his leading-man looks haven't done him too many favors, Law has recently picked up a couple of new accessories: a receding hairline and a paunch. “Dom Hemingway” completes the former tabloid staple's transformation into a character actor — a very good one, in fact — in an obvious bid for a new image that's no less blatant than former Disney starlets shedding their clothes when they turn 18.
In short, Law goes ugly in “Dom Hemingway,” and it's a great look on him. Bursting with thuggish brio, he's a testosterone-choked peacock strutting the streets of lower-class London as the titular character, a former mid-level criminal coming out of a 12-year stint in prison.
“Is my cock exquisite?” are the first words we hear him say, though of course he already knows the answer. “It should hang at the Louvre. It's hard, it's titanium, it can stand all day, my cheetah cock,” he answers, light glinting off the scar on his cheek. He continues lavishing praise on his member — it's like a Picasso, it deserves a Nobel Prize — while receiving oral attention. Apparently the only thing better than being actually fellated is also verbally fellating himself at the same time.
Dom is what you might reasonably get if you transplanted Ernest Hemingway to present-day England without the benefit of education or culture. He relentlessly hones his gifts for swagger, insult, and self-mythology with exuberance and pride. In a sweaty, fierce, entertainingly virile performance, Law plays his delightfully vulgar character with vein-throbbing intensity, a slathered-on Cockney accent (“I'll fink what I want to fink,” he spits when challenged), and just a dash of tragedy to remind us he's not a cartoon.
Too bad, then, that this stylish, tremendously funny black comedy from writer-director Richard Shepard (“The Matador”) ultimately peters out to become just another Guy Ritchie knock-off. Once Dom is released from jail, he sets out with best friend Dickie (Richard E. Grant) to receive his reward for not snitching on his boss, the mysterious Russian gangster Ivan (played by Mexican actor Demián Bichir in a role I wish he'd had more fun with). After a harrowing turn of coke-fueled events, Dom leaves Ivan's French chateau without the money promised him.
Homeless and without a quid, Dom is reduced to showing up at his estranged grown-up daughter Evelyn's (Emilia Clarke) door. Only because he's black and blue from a barfight is Dom let into the small apartment Evelyn shares with her Senegalese husband and bandmate Hugh (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) and their child Jawara (Jordan A. Nash). Dom makes himself at home by saying vaguely racist things to the latter two, though he's clearly grateful that Evelyn has taken him in.
His efforts to patch up his relationship with his rightfully angry daughter easily make up the weakest parts of the film: The sentimental redemption arc flattens both characters into careless parent and neglected child, and Evelyn, like all the other characters other than Dom, is too underdeveloped to resonate as anything more than a prop.
“Dom Hemingway” gains some emotional weight when Dom begins his journey for new employment. Safes have gone electronic since Dom made his living cracking them, but he's determined to prove himself an indispensable tool to the nerdy-cool Lestor (Jumayn Hunter), the twentysomething son of Dom's old rival. The older man auditions to demonstrate his skills are relevant in the digital age, but the tryout goes badly in a hyperbolically emasculating twist that's too ludicrous to be fun.
Unfortunately, what little poignancy “Dom Hemingway” earns in its compassionate depiction of an uneducated man discarded by his society for being just slightly past his prime is later evaporated by an abrupt ending that feels like a betrayal of the events before it.
Ultimately, “Dom Hemingway” wants so badly for its protagonist to have a win that it tosses him a freebie. Dom's gleeful triumph is our disappointment.