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When we first meet the ubiquitous Dom Hemingway (Jude Law), he’s framed from the waist up, delivering a lusty monologue about the incredible power of his “manhood,” all while getting serviced inside a stark prison cell. As Dom celebrates his “personal victory,” as it were, he gets the call that he’s being released: onscreen text handily informs us that “12 years is a long time” before we witness him sauntering freely down the street like the biggest badass in the Western hemisphere, all on his way to beat his ex-wife’s new boyfriend senseless. And with that, ladies and gentlemen, we’re off to the races.

And what a magnificent sprint writer-director Richard Shepard’s Dom Hemingway (2013) ends up being, a ridiculously bright, vibrant, colorful and alive film that comes across like an ungodly combination of A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels (1998). Endlessly inventive, flashy, beautifully shot and with a heart as coal-black as the night sky, Dom Hemingway is a modest marvel anchored by the impossibly feral, brilliant performance of Jude Law, a portrayal so white-hot and intense that Law absolutely deserves the Oscar nomination that he will undoubtedly be denied this year. Make no bones about it: Dom Hemingway is rude, crude, nasty and guaranteed to offend as many folks as humanly possible. It’s also (barring a slightly soggy third act), one of the single most essential films of the year and easily one of my favorites, thus far.

Dom is a man out of step with the modern world, a meat-eating, whiskey-swilling, walking hard-on, a Cro-Magnon throwback to the days when fighting, fucking and raising a ruckus were the calling-cards of the “alpha male.” He’s just done twelve years of hard time for a crime-boss, Mr. Fontaine (Demian Bichir), keeping his mouth shut the whole time like the good soldier he is. Problem is, Dom has “anger issues” and his steadfast refusal to spill his guts has more to do with lording it over Fontaine than it does with any real sense of loyalty: Dom always is and always will be loyal to but one guy and that’s the jackass in the bathroom mirror. Once he’s free and clear, Dom lays into Fontaine in a truly jaw-dropping display of “biting the hand that feeds you,” calling into question everything from his boss’ management skills to his masculinity, culminating with the jaw-dropping demand that Fontaine offer up his stunning girlfriend, Paolina (Madalina Ghenea), “with a bow on,” as payment for his silence.

Attempting to keep Dom in some semblance of control is his best friend/whipping boy Dickie (Richard E. Grant), a one-handed stooge who’s constantly between the rock and a hard place of Fontaine’s reptilian power and Dom’s raging id.  He’s the closest thing Dom has to a “friend,” which is roughly equivalent to the wolf chatting up the lamb prior to digging in to some good old shank. Dickie is fighting a losing battle, however, and when a night of drunken debauchery ends in abject disaster, Dom is sent scuttling back to the one person he hoped to avoid: his estranged daughter, Evelyn (Emilia Clark).

After abandoning Evelyn and her mother to do his prison term, Dom has been persona non grata to his grown daughter, who’s currently living with a large Senegalese family and working as a night-club singer. While he licks his wounds and plots his next move, Dom decides to try to reintegrate himself back into his daughter’s life, with predictable results: she’s managed to make it for twelve years without him and she’s perfectly happy to make it another twelve years without talking to him, thank you very much. Dom is nothing if not persistent, however, and he’s now in the enviable position of having nothing to lose, especially when he ends up on the wrong side of a youthful crime lord, Lestor Jr. (Jumayn Hunter), who still holds a grudge from the time Dom killed his childhood pet. Will Dom be able to tear into fatherhood with the same passion that he has for his vices or is this one caveman who’s well-past his expiration date?

Until the aforementioned third act, Shepard’s Dom Hemingway is damn near a perfect film: uncompromising, dazzling, joyously vulgar and exquisitely cast, I found myself with a big, stupid grin pasted to my dumb mug for the better part of an hour. It’s a film that absolutely reminded me of Guy Ritchie’s best work, with the added benefit of being a mighty fine character portrait. While Law is absolutely marvelous (more on that later), the film is stuffed to bursting with memorable characters. Richard Grant’s Dickie is a great foil for Dom and gets some of the film’s best lines, no mean feat when the script is so consistently sharp. Jumayn Hunter, meanwhile, is a complete blast as the dapper, fundamentally childish Lestor, a man-boy who’s been thrust into leadership of one of England’s largest criminal enterprises while still basing life-or-death decisions on his long-dead cat. Emilia Clarke, for her part, is a fiery presence as the estranged Evelyn: there’s a real authenticity to her scenes with Law that finds a perfect balance between long-held disappointment and anger and her inherent need to seek (however unconsciously) her father’s approval.

The real star of the show, however, above and beyond anyone else, is undoubtedly Jude Law. With a performance that’s a blast furnace of raw emotion, Law is never anything less than spell-binding: until the very end (and even that’s sort of a toss-up), Dom is an intensely unlikable individual, with so few redeeming qualities as to be one pencil-thin-mustache twirl from a complete cad. Just like that other great British bad boy, Alex, however, it’s impossible to tear your eyes from Dom whenever he’s on-screen, which is pretty much the entirety of the film. Truth be told, the only complaint/criticism that I can find regarding his performance is the unfortunate tendency for his big emotional scenes to come across as a bit leaden: even this isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker, although it does turn the film into a bit of a rollercoaster as it roars through the first two acts, hits the brakes for the third as it chugs up the incline and then speeds through to a truly bravura finale that manages to match the opening in terms of sheer energy.

It’s long been said that actors have a better time playing bad guys and, if Dom Hemingway is any indication, that certainly seems to be true. Jude Law seems to be having such a great time snarling and flipping the world the bird that it becomes completely infectious: by the time the end credits roll, you might not agree with Dom but you sure as hell won’t forget him. Vibrant, utterly alive and completely show-stopping, Law’s performance as Dom Hemingway is a vivid reminder of why he’s a genuine movie star. For my money, Law’s performance as Dom is one of the very best of the entire year: fitting, of course, since Dom Hemingway is one of the year’s very best films. Take a walk on the wild side and spend a little time with a genuine scalawag: he’s not the kind of guy you want to invite home for dinner but he’s exactly the right kind of fellow to spend 90 minutes with at the multiplex. Utterly essential.

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