Richard Shepard’s Dom Hemingway opens as the titular miscreant (Jude Law), a profoundly crass safecracker preparing for his impending release from a British prison, rapturously praises the awesome power of his own cock. That he’s doing this while receiving a blowjob from a fellow inmate is the coup de grace, as he delivers this tirade on his mythical unit in the aggravated ecstasy of being perpetually on the verge of, err, finishing. You remember the speech George C. Scott gives at the opening of Patton? Imagine if the sole focus of that diatribe was an English brute’s hard-on and you’ve got an accurate picture of what’s going down here.
It’s a ludicrous way to start a movie, especially since Shepard wasn’t actually looking to make a ludicrous movie. Upon release from jail, Dom goes about collecting on debts, the most important one being back pay for not ratting out Ivan (Demián Bichir), the man who he was working for when he got pinched. Things go bad, forcing Dom to look for work with Lestor (Jumayn Hunter), the crime-kingpin scion of Dom’s former nemesis, but the crime elements of Dom’s story are only of marginal interest to Shepard. As Shepard sees it, Dom Hemingway is a redemption tale, wherein the eponymous scallywag must win back his respect for life and, subsequently, mend his relationship with his daughter, Evelyn (Emilia Clarke), to truly become free.
The moralistic bent is outrageously scattershot, as Shepard’s script never shows Dom doing much soul-searching or working toward expressing any genuine empathy for others. And no matter what bad fortune (briefly) comes Dom’s way or pang of regret he (momentarily) feels, Shepard is insistent in reminding us that he’s always the coolest cat in every room he enters. Indeed, the film’s beguiling messiness owes a lot to a lopsided attempt to simultaneously see Dom as both a careless savage and a big softie. That Dom is so clearly an up-to-11 caricature, embodied with reliable pizzazz by Law, makes the sentimental moments feel especially false.
There’s a natural attraction to Dom’s vulgar swagger, but Shepard still stacks the deck in his favor. The only person who’s nearly as cool as Dom is Dickie (Richard E. Grant), his partner, but the script largely relegates him to cheerleading for Dom rather than challenging him; his prosthetic hand is a favored target of Dom’s impish vitriol. Similarly, Lestor is written as a child, harping on an age-old grudge he has against Dom for killing his childhood pet. There are shades of early Guy Ritchie in these quirks, but a crucial part of what makes Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels work so well is the ruthlessness of the criminals involved, and the lack of apology from Ritchie for what they do.
The thug we meet at the start of Dom Hemingway would have fit in either of those films’ respective menageries of no-goodniks, but Shepard prefers to excuse his character’s overall ugliness with cheap emotional scenarios (a tearful confession at a grave, “heartfelt” pleas for Evelyn’s forgiveness, etc.) aimed at humanizing him as thinly as possible. There’s a cowardice at work in this film, and all of our antihero’s nasty talk works only to underline how unwilling the filmmakers who created him are to make good on all his grandiose threats and promises.