Layer Cake

on May 13, 2005 by Mark Keizer
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"I'm not a gangster. I'm a businessman," says our unnamed hero. And with those words, the British crime saga "Layer Cake" establishes itself as a bit different from its shrill and laddish progenitors. Our protagonist (called XXXX in the end credits and played by Daniel Craig) treats his chosen profession of cocaine dealer no differently than that of a stockbroker. He is a businessman. Selling cocaine happens to be his business. He lives by a set of button-down rules, which include never meeting the end user, keeping your hands clean and staying well under the radar. Before long, he'll break every one of those rules.

"Layer Cake" marks the directing debut of Matthew Vaughn, whose apprenticeship was serving as producer for Guy Ritchie, inventor of the modern, too-hip-for-the-room British gangster film ("Snatch" and "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels"). Vaughn paid close attention to his colleague, because he uses some of the same visual flourishes (as well as some light lifts from Scorsese). But unlike Ritchie, whose films eventually collapsed under the weight of all those "nutters" and "wankers," Vaughn's take seems more grown-up. He's not completely immune to the lure of the genre's basest instincts, but he's off to a good start.

The layer cake of the title refers to the British criminal caste system. Those who know their place in the food chain tend to live longer. Those who fancy themselves higher up then they actually are risk an ignominious end. Our nameless friend knows his place. And with beaucoup retirement funds stashed behind his medicine cabinet, he's ready to leave the business for good. Before he can retire, he's asked to perform two favors for Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham), a country-club villain much higher in the layer cake. Price asks him to sell an enormous quantity of ecstasy pills, stolen from its Serbian owners by an obnoxious lower-caste gangster named The Duke (Jamie Foreman). The other favor is to find a girl who disappeared from rehab with her junkie boyfriend. These dueling favors interact like a shotgun marriage of two distinct story threads, which highlights the problem of a novelist adapting his own novel. J.J. Connolly occasionally has trouble smoothing out the narrative (a series of '70s flashbacks seem to be from another film). One can feel him struggling to get it all in, and there are convoluted moments that threaten to permanently confuse the audience. Plus, our protagonist never wants to leave The Life because he's morally opposed to it. He just happens to have so much money, he'd like to retire. The former would have been more interesting than the latter.

Craig is good in the lead role, but his angular, emotionless face makes one wish for someone more sympathetic-looking to root for. The supporting performances are generally good, especially Michael Gambon, whose villainous demeanor is tempered with a touch of world-weariness. Many of the villains fit neatly into the genre's Maxim Magazine aesthetic, although the ruddy-faced Colm Meaney is strong as a middle-man and George Harris shows explosive power as ex-con Morty.

The idea of a criminal who plans to retire after one last job is older than dirt. But it's a testament to the subdued style, the witty script and the colorful (but not too colorful) characters that we don't even realize the entire story is built on a cliché. Also obvious is the choice of songs by Duran Duran ("there's an ordinary world somehow I have to find") and The Cult ("the world drags me down"), but they are admittedly effective.

Although it may be too much to ask of one film, "Layer Cake" could be the transitional moment between the over-the-top tomfoolery of recent Euro crime films to something more sophisticated and longer lasting. If Vaughn can overcome his stylistic and storytelling rough spots, he may single-handedly restore the British gangster film to its "Get Carter"-era glory. Starring Daniel Craig, Colm Meaney and Kenneth Cranham. Directed by Matthew Vaughn. Written by J.J. Connolly. Produced by Matthew Vaughn, Adam Bohling and David Reid. An SPC release. Drama. Rated R for strong brutal violence, sexuality, nudity, pervasive language and drug use. Running time: 104 min

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