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The first thing we see is Jude Law’s very scruffy face in closeup. This is not the Jude Law you’re used to.

The first thing we hear is Law, as the title character in “Dom Hemingway,” delivering at full-volume cockney eloquence a protracted ode to his private parts.

As the camera pulls back on this scene of absurd priapic bravado, we discover that he’s been psyching himself up during the sort of single sex transitory encounter that prison life has imposed upon Dom.

Law isn’t kidding around in this movie. Not as an actor he isn’t. Or, to be more accurate, he is kidding around through most of it, but it is on the higher plane of “kidding around” on which movie stars like to dwell when they want to get their acting chops and their reputations back.

Law is as far as can be from the absurdly handsome, clear-eyed pretty-boy we’ve so often seen. He’s middle-aged, overweight and is wearing thick muttonchop sideburns almost guaranteed to make a movie actor of fabled good looks seem as ugly and greasy and funky as possible. Dom Hemingway is an enraged, wildly verbal but self-aggrandizing loser, finally free to make as many people as possible pay for his last 12 years of confinement.

It’s his story we’re sitting through. He is, by trade, a very good safecracker and an extremely accomplished thug. His first official act on being released from the joint is to seek out the man who kept his dying ex-wife and young daughter company while he was incarcerated. When he finds him, he breaks as many of his bones as he can and bloodily rearranges his face while the guy’s co-workers at the garage placidly look on to an event they’ve clearly expected to happen for years.

The next thing on Dom’s frantic and somewhat nasty post-release agenda is an encounter with the crime boss he was working for when he took the fall for a botched job. He and his faithful buddy (Richard E. Grant) find their old boss Fontaine (Demian Bechir) in the south of France, living the hedonistic good life with weird monkey paintings on his walls and a beautiful mistress who likes to wear red and sing along with records.

There is, to understate, tension between boss and newly released jailbird. Dom is an ex-con on a mission. That mission is payback. He didn’t rat on his boss or buddies and now he wants what’s coming to him. And part of that, the way Dom keeps score, is the ability to rant, with satanic eloquence, every vile thing he can think of at the old boss who reveled in the good life while Dom rotted behind bars.

Tense, you know? This could really go downhill in a hurry.

Fontaine, to his credit, is an obscenely wealthy thug of compassionate and philosophical turn of mind. He’ll let Dom rant for a while to reset his gyroscope. And while he’s at it, he’ll send booze and hookers his way and, for good measure, $750,000 in reparations.

A lot of tension can, thereby, be defused, right? But then Dom – who seems to have had no opportunity to acquire either luck or moderation – overdoes it a bit and bad news for everyone follows.

But not without a long, steady river of outrageous comic dialogue of Rococo quasi-Elizabethan pungency, as if our third-rate hero has done nothing as a 12-year guest of the state but sharpen his tongue and gunnysack his fury at his friends.

All except his faithful old pal played by the great British comic actor Grant (star of the immortal “Withnail and I”) with much saturnine drollery and some real concern for the welfare of his friend, now riding on a wild emotional roller coaster. Dom’s old buddy seems to have lost his left hand on the job, but none of his affection for his erratic friend.

They’re a heady behavioral triumvirate, these three actors – Law in the middle, erupting all over the place and spitting angry cockney oratory in every direction, Grant indulging him on one side and Bechir smiling darkly on the other but clearly ready, at any moment, to put a very abrupt end to Dom Hemingway’s stormy, star-crossed return to society.

A very watchable movie in the grand British tradition of low-living for the sake of low comedy and high-flying language.

And now the bad news. There are serious third act problems with this film comedy/drama. Writer/director Richard Shepard is a very talented fellow who has, perhaps, directed a few too many excellent TV pilots (“Ugly Betty,” “Ringer,” “Golden Boy”) and can’t figure out any way to get Dom offscreen at the end other than pure sentimentality and a very rusty deus ex machina that should have been well-lubricated before they threw it on screen.

It seems to be Shepard’s point that even when Dom comes out ahead, he’s a small-time loser.

Not true, thank heaven, for Law. His vacation from pretty-boy movie stardom is a winner of a performance, even if the ending of the film isn’t.

Dom hemingway

3 stars

Starring: Jude Law, Richard E. Grant, Demian Bechir, Evelyn Clarke

Director: Richard Shepard

Running time: 93 minutes

Rating: R for language, nudity, sex and violence.

The Lowdown: A safecracker finishes a 12-year stint behind bars and goes to the south of France to claim his crime boss’ reward for maintaining silence.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com