No Conviction, by Josh Long
In Dom Hemingway, Jude Law plays a brash con ready to take on the world. In Dom Hemingway, Jude Law plays an estranged father who will do anything to get his daughter back. In Dom Hemingway, Jude Law plays a safecracker who’s past his prime, trying to integrate into modern day crime. In Dom Hemingway, Jude Law plays a recently released convict who will do anything to get revenge on those who wronged him. The problem is that Jude Law is only playing one character (surprise – it’s Dom Hemingway) in a movie too schizophrenic to focus in any one direction.
Dom is released from prison, and immediately beats up the man who lived with his wife during his incarceration. Then he’s off to France to get his pay from Mr. Fontaine, the crime boss he went to jail for (for some reason, the filmmakers decided to cast Mexican actor Demian Bichir as their Russian crime-boss who lives in France). It builds to a dangerous confrontation with Mr. Fontaine, which fizzles completely when Fontaine pays him off and they party together. A sudden car crash loses Dom all of the money, and he goes drunk and injured to reconnect with his estranged daughter. When she doesn’t want to see him, he tries to get back into safe-cracking, only to find that the crime world has changed in the 12 years he was in prison. When it looks like he may not be able to get back into that world, he holds out hope he’ll be able to start over with his daughter.
That synopsis should be enough for you to understand how all over the place this movie is. There’s this meandering plot, which never seems to build suspense or drama outside of compartmentalized scenes. There are dramatic moments, but they wrap up within themselves, never creating any overarching drama. It seems like the script is trying to smash two movies into one – the story of a loose cannon criminal who’s going to get himself into trouble, and the story of a man trying to rebuild his life after a long imprisonment. These two stories could co-exist in a film, but they don’t in this one. They don’t support each other, they don’t even fit very well together.
This may be in part due to the fact that the titular character is never clearly defined. Jude Law is playing it to the rafters, with mostly positive results. But he bounces so drastically from muscle-headed confidence to woe-is-me piteousness to purpose-driven and back again and again. We never get a hold on who he really is. He’s a character with confused motivations wandering through multiple mini-plots. And there’s no one else in the movie to attract any interest. All of the other characters play rather small roles – Richard E. Grant ranks second in screen time, playing Dom’s entirely unnecessary best friend. There are some moments of genuinely funny dialogue between them, but even their “best-friendship” is unclear and ill-developed.
Stylistically the film stays pretty consistent. Writer-director Richard Shepard brings a sort of Guy Richie panache to the movie, which he beefs up in the scenes more focused around the crime world, and plays down when it gets into the family business. The better moments have a fun energy to them, and I do have to say I enjoyed the musical decisions throughout. Still, the confusing nature of Dom as a character holds everything back.
Also present is a weird approach to morality, where the film seems to congratulate Dom for doing the right thing (saving a girl’s life or apologizing to his daughter) while simultaneously celebrating his abrasive, criminal lifestyle. There are moments where he’s commended for choosing good (once particularly from a frustratingly vapid character whose sole purpose seems to be to express this clunky, obvious thematic exposition). Then he’ll turn around and go back to being his violent temperamental self, with no consequences. If he’s supposed to be learning a lesson here, he’s getting mixed messages.
In a film so centered on the main character’s “bigger than life personality,” the character needs to be very well-defined. Dom Hemingway is an ambiguous, schizophrenic character whose decisions have little to do with his life trajectory. His story doesn’t have a discernible arc, because it stretches itself too thin over multiple plots, never committing to one. A flashy style and occasional clever dialogue isn’t enough to save the movie. Jude Law’s performance has some very strong moments, but there’s unfortunately not much else to salvage here.