Layer Cake

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/20/05 09:04:50

"He tries to get out but . . . you know the drill."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

When we first meet the man, he seems, on the surface, to have everything that people look for in what they consider to be a successful person–he is well-groomed, works out of a nice office, seems perfectly at home in fancy exclusive clubs and has the respect of his peers for the business that he has been able to earn over the years. The joke is that all of those trappings of success have come from completely ill-gotten gains–in his case, the result of being one of Britain’s most enterprising cocaine dealers. However, the man has so completely removed himself from the sordid source of his income that he has deluded himself into thinking that he is a legitimate businessman with a legitimate product and that, having made and socked away a fortune, he can simply walk away without a second thought and spend the rest of his days living a life of leisure. He is sadly mistaken and as the new British crime film “Layer Cake” progresses, he learns just how deluded he has been about his life as he watches it all crumble away.

The man, who is unnamed and referred to as XXXX in the credits (Daniel Craig), has been in the drug business for a while but has no particular fondness or affinity for them himself. To him, they are simply a means by which to make an enormous amount of money with relatively little effort–in that sense, he is no different from any of the executives who presided over Enron during their heyday. Now, he has decided to retire and live the good life–a bit of news that his boss, Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham), is not exactly thrilled to hear as it would mean the loss of his biggest cash cow. Nevertheless, Jimmy agrees to consider it as long as XXXX performs a couple of tasks for him. The first is familiar enough–Jimmy wants him to serve as his representative for a meeting with a pair of low-level thugs (Jamie Forman and Sally Hawkins) who have come into possession of 2 million tabs of Ecstacy. The second is a bit more unusual–the daughter of a well-respected friend of Jimmy’s has disappeared into the London drug underground and XXXX is asked to use his contacts to track her down. XXXX agrees to both jobs, hardly realizing that by doing so, he has unwittingly begun a chain of events that will destroy everything that he has achieved over the years.

When he meets with the Ecstacy dealers, XXXX senses something fishy about the entire deal and walks away from it. Normally, this would be a smart idea but he learns that Jimmy has kept two key facts from him–the dealers not only stole the pills from their initial distributor in a violent robbery that left a few people dead, they arranged the “meeting” with those people by claiming that they were representing Jimmy and XXXX. As a result, the original owner wants the return of the pills and the heads of those responsible and has sent an especially brutal representative with a bag for the former and a cooler for the latter and XXXX’s only chance of keeping his noggin is to track down the now-vanished thieves. As for the missing girl, his vague investigation turns up nothing until he is greeted by the fearsome presence of her father, the imposing Eddie Temple (played by the imposing Michael Gambon), who reveals the far more nefarious reason why Jimmy asked him to track her down in the first place. Even as things begin to increasingly spiral out of control, XXXX is still convinced that he has a handle on everything and can somehow emerge from all of this with his head, life and fortune intact and the hot and ambitious girlfriend (Sienna Miller) of a lower-ranking thug at his side.

On its surface, “Layer Cake” may sound as if it is merely a clone of “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch,” the two goofy gangster films made by Guy Ritchie before he pledged his troth to Madonna and coughed up the still-bewildering “Swept Away.” In this case, the similarities aren’t that surprising since the film’s first-time director Matthew Vaughn began his career as a producer of, among other things, the two Ritchie films. There are similarities–like the earlier films, “Layer Cake” is filled with attention-grabbing camera moves (one scene is entirely shot upward through a glass coffee table for no other reason than the fact that it looks cool), wall-to-wall music, quirky humor and bits of oddball violence. There are also several nifty supporting turns from actors who tear into their roles with zeal–Colm Meany is fearsomely entertaining as another associate of XXXX and Jimmy who finds his loyalties beginning to shift and Gambon all but steals the entire show with his turn as a criminal mastermind who seems like a more well-heeled, but equally dangerous, version of the character that he played so memorably in “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.”

The difference between “Layer Cake” and the Ritchie films is that this one, for all of its flashy fun, has a little more depth to it and that is almost entirely due to the performance from Daniel Craig in the central role. Mallrats will recall him as the guy they didn’t notice standing next to Angelina Jolie in “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” and as the psycho son of Paul Newman in “Road to Perdition” and more adventurous filmgoers may have caught his work in two of last year’s more compellingly odd British imports, “The Mother” and “Enduring Love.” Although it would seem to be the kind of film that is more concerned with the surface details, it is actually the kind of thing that lives or dies based on its central performance–if we don’t find the character intriguing despite (or possibly because of) his deeds, then there is no reason to care about what happens to him as his life falls apart. (This is why Brian De Palma’s “Scarface,” with its towering performance by Al Pacino, is still mesmerizing while its clones are mostly unendurable.) Craig manages to pull off the not-inconsiderable achievement of making his character always compelling to watch while never minimizing the essential monstrousness of his deeds. He even survives the conceit of playing a character with no name or history to speak of–so much so, in fact, that it wasn’t until the end credits began that I even realized that XXXX was never once addressed with a proper name.

“Layer Cake” isn’t without its flaws–there are so many different things going on that the narrative occasionally gets bogged down (I could have lived without the subplot involving another sidekick meeting a figure from his own dark past), the final twist is not the out-of-nowhere surprise that Vaughn and writer J.J. Connolly (adapting from his own novel) seem to think it is and the entire story, if you think about it too much, is essentially just a Brit riff on “Carlito’s Way.” Those quibbles aside, “Layer Cake” is a highly entertaining crime flick that, thanks to the superlative Craig performance, once again serves as a reminder, as a wise man once said, that the weeds of crime bear bitter fruit.

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