‘Hemingway’ revives British gangster film

by Varun Bhuchar | 4/27/14 3:01pm

Before he was known for playing wizened, old British men, Michael Caine got his start playing young and fiery gangster characters in British films. Armed with a Cockney accent, Caine often played lovable rogues who tried to navigate London’s seedy underbelly.

About 40 years later, Jude Law steps into a similar role in “Dom Hemingway” (2013), where he plays the titular character. Jailed for 12 years after being involved in a robbery gone wrong, safecracker Dom returns to the world without much rehabilitation. He’s still the obscene, lecherous and violent fool that he was before he was locked away, and he’s hell-bent on staying that person upon his release. After losing his reward for keeping his mouth shut, however, Dom must reevaluate what remains of his life and re-unite with his estranged daughter, Evelyn (Emilia Clarke).

The British gangster film is a fun beast in and of itself. Unlike the American variation that often focuses on tales of branching Italian families and brutal violent operas, British gangster films are darkly humorous, populated by tongue-in-cheek jokes and colorful characters. Though these films include brutal violence, at times they also seem slapstick and unreal.

While the 1970s films that Caine appeared in are more classical examples of the British gangster genre, moviegoers may be familiar with Guy Ritchie’s one-two punch of “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” (1998) and “Snatch” (2000), which revitalized the genre and its devil-may-care attitude.

Now, in a new decade, “Dom Hemingway” seems to reflect a further iteration of the genre. The first scene portrays Dom in prison, naked and reciting an ode to his penis, yet somewhere down the line, the film becomes reflective and existential. In this regard, it’s like a less subtle Coen brothers’ film. It’s an interesting play to pull halfway through the movie, but it’s the right choice considering how by-the-numbers this film could have been.

In fact, it seems like “Dom Hemingway” is a pastiche of different movie styles cobbled together. Helpfully, the film is split into chapters announced by title cards. The first part feels like the British answer to “Goodfellas” (1990), while the second part is an inspirational film about a struggling, lovable oaf. The last section of the film plays out like Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” (2008), though it beats out the odds for a much happier ending.

The film also serves as a new calling card of sorts for Law, as he enters middle age. Like Matthew McConaughey, he has to show that he can continue to deliver into his golden years, and “Don Hemingway” demonstrates his talent used to its full extent.

With such a flashy role, Law understandably steals the show. Richard E. Grant, who plays Dom’s long-suffering sidekick, manages to hold his own against Law’s firecracker performance playing a fed-up but steadfastly loyal straight man. It’s a good role for the talented character actor whose best-known role remains British cult classic, “Withnail and I” (1987). Clarke, who took time off from caring for her “Game of Thrones” dragons to play her role, shows up to chew the scenery but not much else. This is a shame, as it would be interesting to see what she could do while not dressed in medieval garb.

 

Rating: 8.4/10

 

“Dom Hemingway” is currently playing at the Nugget.