An entertaining Brit gangster flick with no soul but plenty of style, Layer Cake asks us to root for a nameless drug dealer simply because he's less vile than his fellow miscreants.
Well, we also root for him because he's played by a pre-007 Daniel Craig, whose busted nose suggests at some time in the not-too-distant past somebody swept the floor with him.
Craig was here able to effortlessly project an innate intelligence, rough-hewn charm, and smoldering sexuality – qualities that subsequently have been put to good use in his portrayal of James Bond.
Meantime Matthew Vaughn's gritty melodrama finds Craig playing the consummate criminal middleman.
As the film begins his character tells us in a voice-over his philosophy for surviving in the drug trade: Steer clear of guns, never use your own product, and insulate yourself on the supply and distribution ends with underlings who run the real risks.
Our man has been so successful that he's now in a position to retire early and happily.
Then he’s asked to track down the missing daughter of an even more powerful crook (Michael Gambon). Ere long, our peace-loving gent is up to his ears in nastiness courtesy of a stolen stash of ecstasy, some bumbling Mutt-and-Jeff mobsters, a greedy lower-level crook (Jamie Foreman) with a gun-crazy girlfriend, and an all-seeing Serbian heavyweight who serves as this film's version of Keyser Söze (the omnipotent criminal mastermind of The Usual Suspects).
Not only is our gun-shy hero forced to go about armed, but he soon finds he'll have to use that pistol.
Layer Cake – the title refers to the organization of the underworld, with its various layers of bosses, lieutenants and soldiers – ultimately makes sense, but while watching it viewers may be forgiven for feeling a bit lost. The characters speak English, but with accents so heavy that the film could have used subtitles, and the movie is so densely populated it takes a few reels to sort out all these personalities.
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This was Vaughn's directing debut after producing Guy Ritchie's hyperactive gangster films Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Obviously he learned a good deal working with Ritchie and here displays a genuine flair for eye-popping camerawork and imaginative transitional gimmicks.
One scene ends with the camera moving in on Craig's baby blues; then apparently without any cut moves back to show him in a completely different setting and in a commando ski mask.
At the same time Vaughn aims for a deeper emotional resonance than Ritchie has ever achieved. Working with a screenplay by J.J. Connolly adapted from his novel, Vaughan gives us nicely drawn characters who in many cases seem to have a life beyond the film.
And while Craig's middle man may not be particularly admirable, we do find ourselves urging him on, hoping that somehow he'll find a way to squirm free of the ever-tightening tension that is engulfing him.
Other films in the series “The Man Who Would Be Bond”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- November 3: Casino Royale (2006) Rated PG-13
- November 10: Road to Perdition (2002) Rated R
- November 17: Layer Cake (2004) Rated R
- November 24: Munich (2005) Rated R
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- November 5: Quantum of Solace (2008) Rated PG-13
- November 12: Sylvia (2003) Rated R
- November 19: Infamous (2006) Rated R
- November 26: Defiance (2008) Rated R
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.