|Directed by:||Matthew Vaughn|
|Written by:||J.J. Connolly|
|Cast:||Daniel Craig, Michael Gambon, Darren Healy, Nathalie Lunghi, Colm Meaney, Sienna Miller|
|Studio:||Sony Pictures Classics|
With LAYER CAKE, Guy Ritchie cohort/producer Matthew Vaughn sticks his mug in the viewfinder for the first time and whips up something tonally closer to Brit gangster films from decades earlier (GET CARTER, THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY, etc.) than the frenetic, self-conscious heist cyclones of his chum.
Our nameless protagonist (Daniel Craig) is a mid-level narcotics dealer, a cautious, dapper gent who’s been squirreling away funds with the intention of hitting a final score and then taking an early retirement of the voluntary sort, a rarity in his business. Complications arise (and you knew they would) when his immediate superior sends him on a couple of errands, including the recovery of another criminal kingpin’s addict daughter and the negotiation of a massive ecstasy sale. Unfortunately he has to broker the deal with a loose cannon hooligan and his mouthy crew who acquired the goods through questionable methods, and he’s soon dodging a Slavic assassin named Dragan and doing the underworld dance of duplicity with his boss and much higher tiers of the criminal layer cake.
It’s a fairly standard, improbably twisting tale of shady deals and double-crosses, almost unnecessarily complicated by a surplus of secondary characters and a third-act jigsaw frenzy, but rescued by a killer cast and some deft direction. Right from the opening moments, Vaughn smartly weaves through a crowded script by J.J. Connolly (based on his own book), maneuvering the camera with a style and confidence that never calls attention to itself with desperate flash. His approach is more mature and realistic, the sporadic violence never romanticized or played for laughs, his vision of London's crimeside much more vibrant than recent Brit crime flicks.
Daniel Craig basically blended into the background in movies like TOMB RAIDER and ROAD TO PERDITION (well before his Bond days), but in LAYER CAKE he’s just aces, superb and classy, effortlessly stepping to the forefront with the magnetism he assigns his metropolitan gangster (you don’t even realize nobody has referred to him by name until you see him listed only as “XXXX” in the end credits.
Craig's joy supplier is backed by loyal cohorts, notably Irishman Colm Meaney (who undoubtedly deserves more work) as a wonderful gruff thug with somewhat antiquated but no less effective principles and methods. Speaking of underused actors, George Harris (RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK’s Captain Katanga) gets a meaty part as a seemingly placid associate with a hidden temper. Other familiar faces on parade include The Peacemaker terrorist Marcel Iures as the vengeful ecstasy manufacturer, Dexter Fletcher as a womanizing con artist, and a curiously tanned Michael Gambon as the criminal overlord who eloquently tells us how it is. The gorgeous Sienna Miller is the stunner who seduces our leading man, and while I understand the basic necessity of placing a more alluring face among the craggy veterans (and her brief lingerie scene is much appreciated), her fleeting appearance feels like a perfunctory female presence.
For his debut, Vaughn has assembled a respectable villain-filled affair with a winding narrative, a happening soundtrack, a banana yellow Range Rover, a pistol with a history, and innovative use of a clothes iron. But among LAYER CAKE’s many ingredients, it’s ultimately the surprisingly proficient presentation and crackerjack cast that spells success.