Layer Cake

Layer Cake
Directors: Matthew Vaughn
Screenplay: J.J. Connolly (based on his novel)
Stars: Daniel Craig (XXXX), Colm Meaney (Gene), Kenneth Cranham (Jimmy Price), George Harris (Morty), Jamie Foreman (The Duke), Michael Gambon (Eddie Temple), Tamer Hassan (Terry), Ben Whishaw (Sidney), Burn Gorman (Gazza), Sally Hawkins (Slasher), Sienna Miller (Tammy)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2004 (U.S.); 2005 (U.S.)
Country: U.K.
Layer Cake
Daniel Craig has been in a lot of supporting roles in both British and American films during the past 15 years, so his face elicits an immediate sense of recognition, even though you probably can’t quite place it. As it turns out, that sense of vague familiarity fits his leading role perfectly in the crime caper Layer Cake, where he plays a sternly efficient, no-nonsense London drug dealer whose simple desire in life is to make money, stay out of trouble, and retire early. Unlike most criminals, he isn’t caught up in a fever dream of power and control; rather, he just wants to conduct his business and stay out of the limelight.

Unfortunately, as every film noir has taught us, the protagonist’s desires almost always run counter to the way the world actually works, and Layer Cake quickly turns into a downward spiral for Craig’s character (who is, interestingly enough, never explicitly named). On the verge of finally calling it quits, he is brought in for a lunch meeting with Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham), a mob boss for whom he does a lot of work. Jimmy wants him to take care of two jobs: locate the drug-ridden daughter of one of his associates and quickly find a buyer for 1 million Ecstasy pills. Craig doesn’t want to do it, but you don’t say “no” to a man like Jimmy Price.

Both jobs turn out to involve much more than Craig bargained for, as the missing girl is the daughter of Eddie Temple (Michael Gambon, light years from his role as Dumbledor in the Harry Potter films), a mob boss even more vicious and cunning than Jimmy. Also, Jimmy’s reasons for having Craig find the girl are not as disinterested as they first appear. And, on top of that, it turns out that the Ecstasy pills, which are currently in the possession of a motormouth thief named The Duke (Jamie Foreman) and his trigger-happy girlfriend, were stolen from Serbian gangsters known for beheading their enemies. Before Craig knows it, he has enemies on all sides and he’s trapped in a kill-or-be-killed scenario, which is ironic given that he professes a dislike of guns early in the film and insists that he is a businessman, not a gangster.

Layer Cake was directed by Matthew Vaughn, who has never directed a film before, but has produced Guy Ritchie’s hyperkinetic crimefests, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000), as well as Ritchie’s Madonna debacle Swept Away (2003) (but the less said about that, the better). Despite Vaughn’s involvement with those films, it appears that Ritchie’s overcooked style hasn’t rubbed off on him, although his own cinematic voice is hardly unique.

Layer Cake works, but it doesn’t stand out in any way; it looks and sounds like any number of British crime thrillers that skirt the fine line between drama and comedy. Vaughn is particularly enraptured with bizarre point-of-view shots (such as one from a dead body inside a freezer) and scene transitions that morph from one location to another seemingly without a cut. He unsurprisingly punctuates much of the film with familiar British rock tunes, but he should be given credit for making it an eclectic mix, employing everything from The Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary,” to Duran Duran’s “Ordinary World” (used during a particularly vicious beating, in which the audience is put in the position of the victim), to The Rolling Stone’s immortal “Gimme Shelter.”

While Layer Cake won’t win any awards for originality (just how many crime movies are founded on the idea of upsetting the plans of a criminal wanting to retire?), it flows along smoothly enough, even when J.J. Connolly’s overburdened plot (adapted from his own novel) becomes so overloaded that plot threads have to be entirely abandoned just to maintain momentum. There are a few unexpected twists in the end that keep you guessing, and a last minute turn of events that cunningly undercuts the concluding moments’ jaunty tone of victory. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but Vaughn invests it with enough style and energy to make it worth the trip.

Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick

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All images copyright ©2005 Sony Pictures Classics

Overall Rating: (3)

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