I watched Matthew Vaughn’s Brit gangster movie Layer Cake without so much as looking at the presskit, or in fact knowing that it even was a gangster flick. I note this because the movie immediately reminded me of Guy Ritchie’s Snatch — a meaner, somewhat less stylized Snatch — so it didn’t come as a surprise when it turned out that Vaughn had produced both Snatch and the earlier Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and was here making his directorial debut.
And a pretty impressive directorial debut it is. Vaughn’s movie isn’t as wild a ride as the Ritchie films, but the very fact that it’s a little more straightforward may make Layer Cake more accessible to many viewers.
Daniel Craig stars as an underworld “middle man” — identified in the credits strictly as “XXXX” and never addressed by name in the film — in the drug racket. He’s an unusual gangland figure, in that he’s not greedy or stupid and he actually has a plan: to get in, make just enough money, double-cross no one and get out. This sane and rational plan has the fatal flaw of being sane and rational in a world that isn’t.
Just as he’s on the verge of retiring from the rackets, he finds himself being summoned by the man he answers to, Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham, Gangster No. 1). (“You know why people like you can’t leave this business? Because you make too much money for people like me.”) Jimmy has a beyond-the-call-of-duty job for XXXX. He wants him to find the daughter of the real “Mr. Big,” Eddie Temple (Michael Gambon). According to Jimmy, the girl escaped from a drug rehab facility, and Temple would take it as a great favor if she could be found.
The task is hardly to XXXX’s liking, and neither is his second assignment of trying to set right a drug deal that’s gone very wrong, but he’s given no choice in the matter. The trick to all this is that nothing is exactly as it seems — and it stays that way throughout the film, which boasts as intricate and complex a plot as anyone might want.
But clever and absorbing as it is, it’s less the plot than it is the strong performances and characters — not to mention the hard-as-nails tone — that gives the film its impact. Craig’s performance as XXXX is of such high caliber that it ought to propel him out of the realm of featured player and into that of star in his own right, but he doesn’t own the film. No one in a movie that also has Colm Meaney and Michael Gambon in its cast is going to walk away with all the honors.
Meaney is the absolute personification of the Brit gangster. He’s ruthless and possessed of a violent temper, yet strangely reasonable and not without his own odd sense of right and wrong. (It’s the sort of performance Bob Hoskins might have thought he was giving in Unleashed, but wasn’t.) Gambon — witty, elegant, sensible and utterly lethal — is totally in his element as the highest of the high in the crime world. (“I’ve checked you out, son. You’re a smart boy, but you keep very, very bad company.”)
And then there’s the film’s aforementioned tone, which keeps everything on target throughout. J.J. Connolly’s screenplay, which is adapted from his novel, is a brutal, cynical, witty affair that takes no prisoners and instead just lets the bodies pile up. Even more amazingly, it never trips itself up on its own cleverness. One might question the film’s final scene: I’d say that it’s a mistake to some extent, though it certainly underscores the overriding theme that there’s just no way of making sense out of a business that’s filled with senseless people.
Vaughn’s handling of the material is just right, and every bit as ruthless and unflinching in its depiction of the crime world’s offhanded violence as the characters in the movie. As such, this is definitely not a film for everyone. People who are put off by extreme violence would be well advised to stay away from Layer Cake, but for those who like their gangster flicks on the mean, darkly humorous side, this is the goods. Rated R for strong brutal violence, sexuality, nudity, pervasive language and drug use.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke