Layer Cake
Layer Cake

UK, 2004. Rated R. 104 minutes.

Cast: Daniel Craig, Colm Meaney, Kenneth Cranham, George Harris, Jamie Foreman, Sienna Miller, Michael Gambon, Marcel Iures, Tom Hardy, Tamer Hassan, Ben Whishaw, Burn Gorman, Sally Hawkins
Writer: J.J. Connolly, based on his novel

Original Music: Lisa Gerrard, Ilan Eshkeri
Cinematographer: Ben V. Davis
Producers: Adam Bohling, David Reid, Matthew Vaughn
Director: Matthew Vaughn


Grade: B+ Review by Carlo Cavagna

There's a new breed of drug dealers out there, well educated and well bred. Drugs are just a business enterprise to them, to be run according to efficient business principles. Someday soon, drugs may be legally available from designer brands on department store shelves, but until that day there's a pile money to be made, as long as you adhere to The Rules.

These are The Rules:

That's how you stay in business. That's how you stay alive. That's how Daniel Craig's unnamed protagonist (you can call him XXXX, as the credits do) has stayed clean in a dirty enterprise. He's rich and ready to retire. But just when he thought that he was out, they pull him back in.

Daniel Craig
Daniel Craig makes a point with Colm Meaney (rear center) and George Harris (rear right) looking on in Layer Cake.

You do know what's coming, don't you? XXXX is about to break every single rule.

It all starts innocuously enough, after XXXX introduces his world in a narrated sequence reminiscent of Goodfellas. His supplier Jimmy (Kenneth Cranham) demands two tasks of him:

1) Find the daughter of his associate Eddie Temple (Michael Gambon).

2) Negotiate the purchase of a large shipment of ecstasy from Duke (Jamie Foreman).

As you can guess, neither errand is as simple as it seems. Duke and his crew of raging idiots have foolishly robbed the ecstasy from some exceedingly deadly people, and Temple's daughter—well, let's not give the whole story away. Suffice it to say, as XXXX's partner Morty (George Harris) observes, “This shit is out of control.” Then he loses control himself by bashing another man's skull to a pulp.

The shit may be out of control, but director Matthew Vaughn is firmly in it. The producer of Lock, Stock & 2 Smoking Barrels makes an striking debut with Layer Cake, which he decided to direct only after Guy Ritchie pulled out. Thanks to Vaughn and J.J. Connolly's savvy script, Layer Cake proves a different kind of crime film from Ritchie's over-the-top capers. Layer Cake is just as intricately plotted as Ritchie's films, but far more serious, more deliberately paced, and in the end more suspenseful, because it's a film about making difficult decisions in the struggle to survive. The one character reminiscent of Ritchie's films, Duke, is exactly the sort of posturing fool The Rules instruct you to avoid. Otherwise, the criminals are smart. “Only very stupid people think criminals are stupid,” remarks XXXX.

Craig, who previously starred in Sylvia and The Mother (but is likely more recognizable for supporting roles in Road to Perdition and Tomb Raider) , gives an apt portrayal of XXXX, neither too revealing (which keeps the audience guessing) nor too opaque (which keeps the audience on his side). Vaughn intercuts character conversations with snippets of past or future events in order to punctuate, lend irony, and further stoke the suspense. Layered over the story is a nifty and varied soundtrack that includes well known songs from The Cult and Duran Duran, as well as atmospheric tracks featuring the vocals of former Dead Can Dance frontwoman Lisa Gerrard (Gladiator). The pacing is disrupted only by an overly long speech by Temple, in which he gives XXXX a ton of information that XXXX should damn well have discovered for himself. It's a short cut by Connolly, who slashed his novel severely to fit the story into a two-hour film.

Temple also makes clear the meaning of the ambiguous title. It doesn't involve bakeries. Rather, the title is purely a metaphor for the stratified criminal underworld, as well as society as a whole. In this layer-cake world the art of a good businessman is being a good middleman. As for the ending, it's either darkly audacious or a total cop-out, depending on whether you care more about correct morality or the fate of the protagonist.

Review © February 2005 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2005 Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved.

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