Although ultimately no less artificial than hyperactive laddie gangster flicks like Snatch, for a good period of time Layer Cake seems to be leading towards a more substantial end than its high-polished look and glistening pop soundtrack would suggest, something closer to, say, the morbid maunderings of Sexy Beast – a good half-dozen switcheroos later and you realize that in the end it is simply a laddie gangster flick, just an uncommonly good one at that.
Directed by Matthew Vaughn – who apparently was watching over Guy Ritchie’s shoulder while producing his films, and learned how to ape a certain sensibility while not appearing to try so bloody hard – Layer Cake is a professional piece of work about an unnamed cocaine dealer (referred to in the credits as XXXX and played by Daniel Craig) who’s looking for an easy, safe and early retirement from the business. He’s the opposite of your average filmic dealer, avoiding mess and boasting, no flash cars or gun-waving machismo for him. Just a quiet, unassuming business wherein he and a few associates distribute some merchandise in a calm and orderly manner (their stash house is a model of OCD cleanliness), keeping their heads down and building up a good and well-laundered nest egg, all the while baffled that the government and drug companies haven’t figured out to make their billions on the drugs he’s dealing: “Until the prohibition ends, make hay while the sun shines.”
Then comes the boss, Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham, playing the sort of noisy nouveau riche guy who takes his lads out to lunch in a posh restaurant and tells them the food “will make your bollocks tingle”), with the kind of messy errand sure to give a tight-laced fellow like XXXX a headache – the druggie daughter of a good friend has taken a runner from a rehab clinic, go out and find her. Also mucking up XXXX’s cozy and proper little business is the issue with his nemesis, Duke (Jamie Foreman), a dealer also in Jimmy’s employ but a stupid blowhard and monstrous screw-up, who has somehow managed to swindle some Serbs out of a million-odd pills, which Jimmy wants XXXX to help sell. Problem is, the Serbs are a pretty hardcore bunch, recently unemployed as war criminals, and have a hatchet man – who goes by the name of Dragan and has a penchant for removing heads – out looking for the pills.
It goes without saying that things quickly go from bad to worse for XXXX, in the way of Raymond Chandler’s old advice to writers about how to keep things moving: when in doubt, have a big guy with a gun knock at the door. There’s perhaps a certain satisfaction that audiences would get from having a protagonist this buttoned-up getting his world thrown into such chaos, but we see so little of his life before things start heading down the tubes that there’s not much sense of how much things have changed. This lack of a proper setup (more clearly laid out in the excellent novel of the same name, whose author, J.J. Connelly, wrote the screenplay) is probably the first major failing of what is, by most ways one measures such things, an intensely entertaining picture.
Sure, it’s all well and good to watch XXXX work his increasingly frantic black magic, juggling the demands of Jimmy, Dragan, Tammy (the already-taken moll he’s infatuated with, played by Sienna Miller, just as blonde and frighteningly attractive as Craig), his own mates Morty (the impassively scary George Harris) and Gene (Colm Meaney, Celtic-ly cruel) and another powerful crime boss, played with wicked élan by Michael Gambon. But it would have had a bit more impact had we seen a bit more of the methodical criminal enterprise that led up to this point of crisis, especially once the film arrives at its second major problem: the wearying flurry of trickery and double-crosses which occupy its final passages.
One’s mind is not going to be overly filled with questions by the end of Layer Cake, when its final (and rather impressive) twist has gobsmacked the audience – this isn’t exactly The Usual Suspects here. But the writing is crisp and deeply layered, and the filmmakers gave themselves a rich array of actors to work with, most especially Gambon and Craig, whose ridiculously chiseled face and laser-bright blue eyes (he and Miller seem drawn to each other almost because they’re just the two cutest blondes around) belie his considerable talents. Here’s to hoping that those rumors of him being the next James Bond stay just that, rumors, it’d be terrible to lose him to an action franchise so soon. We need more movie gangsters like him