Layer Cake (United Kingdom, 2004)
Layer Cake is the latest in the recent cluster of British gangster/caper films begun by Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Matthew Vaughn, the director and co-producer of Layer Cake, held the producing credit for Lock and Ritchie's follow-up, Snatch. As such, it's no surprise that Layer Cake borrows aspects of the "feel" of those films. There's the same morbid sense of black humor, although Layer Cake is more character driven and less gruesome than the earlier productions. And, for pure shock value, it contains a "didn't see that one coming" moment unlike anything in either of Ritchie's ventures into this genre.
When Layer Cake opens, life is grand for the nameless protagonist, played by Daniel Craig. He's a middle-man in drug transactions, and he follows a small list of rules that keep him safe from most of the risks inherent in his profession. Unfortunately, many of his associates - like tough guys Gene (Colm Meaney) and Morty (George Harris) - aren't as finicky, and Layer Cake's leading man soon finds himself caught between a drug lord, Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham); a sinister businessman, Eddie Temple (Michael Gambon); and a stone-cold killer (Dragan Micanovic). It's not a comfortable place to be, since any one of those three will happily kill him if he doesn't come up with 1,000,000 stolen ecstasy tablets. In true gangster fashion, our hero plans a classic double-cross, but ends up underestimating at least one of his foes. Or does he?
Layer Cake's greatest virtue is that it's a lot of fun - if you like this sort of movie. It's a little bleak, a little twisted, a little gory, and a lot funny. The humor is dead-pan, much like in Lock and Snatch. Its unselfconscious nature is what allows it to work. Vaughn, working from a script by J.J. Connolly (who based it on his novel of the same name), never goes for the easy laugh. This is, after all, an action/drama, not a comedy, and that's one of the reasons its wry, cynical observations provoke smiles and chuckles.
There are plenty of twists and turns to be navigated, but not as nearly as many as in Lock or Snatch. Those films were all about plot and little about character. Layer Cake takes the time to develop the protagonist, making him more civilized than one might expect from a drug dealer. He is urbane and has sophisticated tastes. He doesn't like guns, although will use one if pressed. He's attracted to a girl (Sienna Miller) he meets at a club, but sex isn't the only thing on his mind. And he resents being placed in a situation where pain is the likely outcome. He narrates the film with a smart internal monologue that gives us insight into the intricacies of his dangerous trade. He doesn't have a heart of gold, but he's no traditional blackguard. Most importantly, he's interesting, which often isn't the case with leading men in this sort of genre flick.
Rumor has it that Daniel Craig is one of the front-runners to be the next James Bond. Putting aside how often 007 rumors are wrong, I can see him as the superspy. He has the two requisite characteristics: toughness and a smooth, urbane manner. If Layer Cake is an audition, Craig earns a passing grade. Vaughn has surrounded his leading man with a group of accomplished character actors, many of whom are playing to type. Michael Gambon is suitably diabolical. Colm Meany is scrappy and foul-mouthed. The chameleon-like Kenneth Cranham adds this to a diverse credits list that includes such respected productions as "Danger UXB" and "Brideshead Revisited." And Sienna Miller is sexy in a low-class sort of way.
On the strength of Layer Cake, Vaughn was chosen to direct the third X-Men movie (a job he eventually turned down, citing a desire to stay close to home in the U.K. rather than re-locate to Canada for the filming). It's not hard to see why. Layer Cake has a fresh, distinctive style that points to its director as being confident in his material and the way he has chosen to bring it to the screen. Because the movie focuses more on a character than his actions, we are drawn into the protagonist's world before it begins to collapse around him. Even though, in a black-and-white landscape where all drug dealers are "evil," he's technically a bad guy, we find ourselves rooting for him, if only because he's the nicest of a bunch. And when Vaughn punctuates things with an unexpected report, we're left with an admiration for his audacity. Technically, Layer Cake is a B-movie, but it's compulsively watchable, and a "B" sounds just about right for the grade.
Layer Cake (United Kingdom, 2004)
Cast: Daniel Craig, Colm Meaney, George Harris, Kenneth Cranham, Michael Gambon, Jamie Foreman, Sienna Miller, Dragan Micanovic
Screenplay: J.J. Connolly, based on his novel
Cinematography: Ben Davis
Music: Ilan Eshkeri, Lisa Gerrard
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
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