Skip to main content

I’m not going to stop stating it. I’ll state what I want to state in whatever state I want to. Fuck you!

Dom Hemingway
(2013)

(SPOILERS) It’s easy to make bad British crime movies, particular ones that also try to do the funny. They can end up seeming like lads’ days out. Guy Ritchie cornered this market back in the late ‘90s, in a mostly quite poor post-Tarantino glut. His technically elaborate slices of cockney mayhem followed a similar wannabe hard man course (from a posh boy) as Tarantino during his inadvisable bouts of attempting to show he was a tough as his characters. In their obsession with showing how cool they were, these movies often lacked much beneath their veneer and posturing. Not that substance is essential; attitude is a reasonable-enough aspiration, the first or second time round. But if it drives the engine, character and story inevitably lose out. And their makers end up looking juvenile. Richard Shepard’s latest film succeeds in being cool, very funny and surprisingly affecting. In this respect, it’s not dissimilar to his earlier, also very good and under-appreciated, The Matador.


The mixture of comedy and pathos is a difficult juggling act, and it requires a strong authorial voice to carry it. The recent Filth lived up to its name on many levels, but couldn’t quite marry its aspirations with a steady guiding hand. In contrast, Sexy Beast, now something of a British crime movie legend thanks to the indelible performance of Ben Kingsley, is narratively less certain but has a guiding hand so steady and certain in Jonathan Glazer that the cracks are papered over with finesse. That film, like Dom Hemingway, features a safecracker as the central character (a favourite movie criminal profession) and a shift of focus following midpoint carnage. 


The difference is, Sexy Beast retreats from its show-stopping showdown into something more run-of-the-mill and thus slightly disappointing. Dom changes direction completely, and those expecting it to stay true to its crime movie furnishings will no doubt come away put out. But I found it a refreshing, unexpected decision, one that adds all-important heart and purpose without seeming glib and without the feeling that it has lurched onto another track because it doesn’t know what to do with itself. On the contrary the whole movie is revealed to be about Dom Hemingway, past his prime and strutting a persona instead of a rounded person, and what he really values as opposed to what he thought he values.


I don’t think Shepard is quite up on a level with the McDonagh brothers (In Bruges, The Guard, Seven Psychopaths), but his writing and direction are highly distinctive and he imbues his characters with a warmth absent from many who dabble in this genre. And, while it is no criteria for success, he knows the value of telling a story concisely. In an era when the length of a movie is seen as some kind of indicator of whether it is any good (so it must be about two hours, and anything less probably means there’s something amiss), his pictures clock in closer to the 90-minute mark. Yet that feels exactly like the right length for them.


The premise is straightforward; Dom is released from prison after a 12-year stretch. He didn’t snitch, so he expects compensation This results in a trip to the South of France with his old cohort Dickie (Richard E. Grant) where they meet old his boss, who just happens to be “one of most dangerous men in all of Europe” (Demian Bichir as Monsieur Fontaine). If this scenario has a passing flavour of the exotic encounter between Ray Winstone and Kingsley in Sexy Beast, it reveals itself as something else entirely. Both primo hard men die, but Dom hasn’t inveigled into one last heist. When it comes, his safe cracking moment is an expertly executed set piece of humour and tension. Yet it is only there to reconfirm that Dom has to make amends with his family. And it’s this aspect that will either make or break the movie, depending on expectations and how satisfying you find Dom’s change of heart.


If Shepard comes up short anywhere, it’s that his female characters are (intentionally?) cyphers; inserted to signal shifts in direction for Dom. Paolina (Madalina Ghenea) is lusted after by Dom, predicating his verbal meltdown in which he insults Fontaine. She also becomes his nemesis, and so facilitates his shift in values when she makes off with his money. Melody (Rome’s Kerry Condon) is the sage on whom Dom reluctantly administers CPR, rewarding him with the promise that “good luck will shine down on you when you least expect it and most need it”. Later she returns at an opportune moment, to all but wave a magic wand for a despairing Dom. Asked what he most wants, Dom blurts out his money, before admitting that it is really his daughter’s forgiveness (“Just by picking her, you’ve already shown that the pendulum of luck is swinging your way”). So it’s appropriate that, when Dom encounters Paolina again, he doesn’t really intend to make good on his threat to kill her; he has different priorities, even if the swiped ring is a nice (unnecessary) consolation prize. 


As for daughter Evelyn (Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke, looking almost ordinary without her blonde locks), Clarke gets to show off her singing voice, but there’s no added dimension to being told he was a bad dad (which predictably means we sympathise more with Dom than her). Ineed, the scenes between Dom and her boyfriend Hugh (Utopia’s Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) are more memorable for Dom’s clumsy prejudices. That doesn’t mean his change of heart isn’t felt, it’s just that Evelyn isn’t so much a character as symbol.


I’ll admit I wasn’t sure Dom Hemingway was going to work for me, what with the first scene introducing us to Dom’s macho bravura (“Study my cock”) while a member of prison staff is servicing his member. I’ve been more than convinced of Jude Law’s redefinition as a fine actor over the past few years, just as he has hit middle age and started losing his hair. He’s playing older here (I think), and his hirsute mutton-chopped visage and antique suits give him an out-of-time flavour. As if he should have been knocking about up busting open safes during the ‘70s, even though he’s much much too young. But I was given pause by Law doing his best Ray Winstone; he may not be so pretty any more, but he’s never really been anyone’s idea of bruiser potential.


It’s not until he falls in with Dickie Black (Grant giving it some like Withnail never went away) that Dom begins to click. The fish out of water, man out of time thing could have been overdone (no smoking in pubs?) but it works because Dom is defined by his idea that he is someone (“I AM DOM HEMINGWAY” he shouts as he drunkenly speeds towards the accident that redefines him) and a code of honour that few in the next generation share (“I played by the rules” he complains at one point). The affectation of Law and his eccentric dialogue takes hold, and his heightened demeanour becomes a pleasure to watch and hear.


Dom is coarse, crude and vulgar with a hint of poetry. His extensive vocabulary is at odds with his intelligence and demeanour; he’s a relatively simple man with big anger issues, but you add in a delicious turn of phrase and Dom becomes a character to savour. He is “a peasant at heart, a petty serf” who once played the apothecary in Romeo and Juliet. The mock-Shakespearean language is a joy, and you’d never guess Shepard’s origins are transatlantic. “Misfortune befell me,” opines Dom, as if he is about to break into a tragic ode. But then he can flip completely, intoning, “That’s the fucker who I am” with savage menace. Law relishes the opportunity to deliver these lines, knowing full well this sort of thing doesn’t come along too often (“After much heartbreak and ruin the pendulum of luck has finally swung back to Dom Hemingway and I intend to enjoy each of his fickle pleasures, whether it lasts for a minute or even a lifetime”). As much as the mid-point gear change will qualify your enjoyment, so will Shepard’s use of language since realism is not high on his list of priorities.


The other key ingredient in the success of Dom Hemingway is Reg, in a role written for him by Shepard. It wouldn’t be wholly unfair to suggest Grant hasn’t been especially well-catered for in his post-Withnail & I career. The particular brand of splenetic superiority found in his collaborations with Bruce Robinson is a perfect fit for his natural OTT-ness. Cast without due care or attention his presence can seem under-nourished, with characters that fail to support his energy. Alternately, he can come across as plain hammy or lacking in register. How many memorable roles has he had over the last two decades? Whether it’s by choice or just that no one can write for him, it’s probably true to say that most people love him in Withnail but are indifferent to him in almost everything else. The picture’s cult success served him for a period in Hollywood (see With Nails) but this is the first movie since that truly serves his personality. 


It’s curious that, say Terry-Thomas is rightly celebrated for his magnificent comedy turns as a cad and a scoundrel in film after film, but there appears to be resistance to Grant cutting loose doing what he’s best at; box him in and you reduce his capacity for inimitable performances. The only difference between Grant and Law enjoying Shepard’s lines is that Reg makes it look so easy. There are too many choice passages to quote, but imagine Withnail uttering the following and you get the general idea; “He was raised in an orphanage and kills people for a living. Of course he has a well-stocked bar”, “You’ve got to beg forgiveness of him. You’ve got to put on trousers”, “I ain’t burying your body out here. Because I’m too fucking old and I didn’t bring the right shoes”. Then there’s this exchange:


Dickie: I’m just stating what I’m stating.
Dom: Stop stating what you’re stating.
Dickie: I’m not going to stop stating it. I’ll state what I want to state in whatever state I want to. Fuck you!

The side effect of Dickie’s presence as a supporting character is that he bows out with insufficient notice; the movie is, after all, about the titular man himself. But the chemistry between Law and Grant is effortless, and their repartee is a delight. Quirks such as Dickie’s false hand (“I thought it was a fashion statement. You always were a bit of a clothes fan,” says a baffled Dom) and that familiar Grant cackle of laughter when Dom cracks Lestor’s safe (“You did it, Dom! You did it!”) mask the fact that Dickie is the more circumspect and much less firebrand of the duo. Repeatedly Dom oversteps the mark and Dickie must attempt to salvage the situation or bring him back down; in that sense he’s more I than Withnail. Love the Grant. Great to have him back and remember why he made such an impression in the first place.


Elsewhere, Bichir brings just the necessary quotient of tempered menace to Mr Big. The scene in which Dom rants apoplectically is sort of the inverse of Kingsley in Sexy Beast; it’s Ivan (“Ivan-a”) who just watches him raging and you’re unsure quite what will happen next. That he doesn’t attempt to kill Dom is is unexpected (“I do owe you, Dom”), instead forcing his guest to eat crow, or rather “The rabbit is getting cold” (earlier Dom has been emphatic; “Rabbits are pets. I don’t eat pets”). 


Pets are also central to Dom’s second altercation with a (potential) employer. Lestor (Jumayn Hunter) has never forgiven Dom for what he did to the family feline (“You’re a killer of cats, Dom. And I want nothing to do with you”) so it should probably be little surprise that he fixes the safecracking challenge, concealing one safe within another. The price will be the severing of Dom’s prize appendage (thus neatly paying off the opening posing). Where Dom’s outburst at Fontaine sees us wincing with Dickie, so his grandstanding 10-minute try-out has us laughing and cheering along with his best mate (“And that, my friends, is how you open a safe”). The scene emphasises Melody’s ministrations that higher forces are saving Dom from himself; he must have known severing the safe alarm would bring the security team running, but he can’t have foreseen Lestor’s intentions or he would never have shown up. Making their arrival at that crucial moment more than fortuitous.


Richard Shepard has been making movies for more than two decades, but I’ve only seen a couple of them (I recall the release of The Linguini Incident and electing to give it a miss, even though I’m usually an easy sell for a Bowie turn). I loved The Matador, though, and this is even better. As with that picture Shepard pulls off a deft combination of the funny and the threatening, making left-field turns in direction that should but don’t seem out of place. Dom Hemingway may not have been greeted with acclaim, but if there’s any justice this is a cult movie in waiting.


****


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

Why don't we go on a picnic, up the hill?

Invaders from Mars (1986) (SPOILERS) One can wax thematical over the number of remakes of ’50s movies in the ’80s – and ’50s SF movies in particular – and of how they represent ever-present Cold War and nuclear threats, and steadily increasing social and familial paranoias and disintegrating values. Really, though, it’s mostly down to the nostalgia of filmmakers for whom such pictures were formative influences (and studios hoping to make an easy buck on a library property). Tobe Hooper’s version of nostalgia, however, is not so readily discernible as a John Carpenter or a David Cronenberg (not that Cronenberg could foment such vibes, any more than a trip to the dental hygienist). Because his directorial qualities are not so readily discernible. Tobe Hooper movies tend to be a bit shit. Which makes it unsurprising that Invaders from Mars is a bit shit.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

I hate natural causes!

Body Bags (1993) (SPOILERS) I’m not surprised Showtime didn’t pick this up for an anthology series. Perhaps, if John Carpenter had made Coming Home in a Body Bag (the popular Nam movie series referenced in the same year’s True Romance ), we’d have something to talk about. Tho’ probably not, if Carpenter had retained his by this point firmly glued to his side DP Gary Kibbe, ensuring the proceedings are as flat, lifeless and unatmospheric as possible. Carpenter directed two of the segments here, Tobe Hooper the other one. It may sound absurd, given the quality of Hooper’s career, but by this point, even he was calling the shots better than Carpenter.

Call me crazy, but I don’t see America coming out in droves to see you puke.

The Hard Way (1991) (SPOILERS) It would probably be fair to suggest that Michael J Fox’s comic talents never quite earned the respect they deserved. Sure, he was the lead in two incredibly popular TV shows, but aside from one phenomenally successful movie franchise, he never quite made himself a home on the big screen. Part of that might have been down to attempts in the late ’80s to carve himself out a niche in more serious roles – Light of Day , Bright Lights, Big City , Casualties of War – roles none of his fanbase had any interest in seeing him essaying. Which makes the part of Nick Lang, in which Fox is at his comic best, rather perfect. After all, as his character, movie star Nick Lang, opines, after smashing in his TV with his People’s Choice Award – the kind of award reserved for those who fail to garner serious critical adoration – “ I’m the only one who wants me to grow up! ”

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.