Film Reviews: Wednesday, June 01, 2005
Layer Cake
Starring Daniel Craig. Directed by Matthew Vaughn. Written by J.J. Connolly, based on his own novel. Rated R.
Everything on the Table

The English gangster flick
Layer Cake is tasty, even though it crumbles at the end.


Just so we’re clear, Layer Cake is not a movie that takes place in a bakery. It’s a hard-boiled British thriller, and the title is a metaphor for both London’s criminal underworld and England’s society as a whole. As metaphors go, it’s pretty strained compared with the old standbys (rat race, maze, ladder, greasy pole, etc.). The movie’s occasional straining for effect is a shame, because it could have joined the ranks of all-time great British gangster films. Instead, it’s merely a highly watchable diversion.
Daniel Craig plays the man at the center of the story, a guy who plays it so close to the vest that he never tells us his name. He’s a middle manager in the drug trade who wears a suit and doesn’t carry a gun. He keeps a cool head, a low profile, and the company of a small, trusted circle of colleagues who approach the business the same way he does. He squirrels away his money and plans to retire, even though his boss Jimmy (Kenneth Cranham) tells him early on, “People like you don’t leave the business, because you make too much money for people like me.” Of course, when the big shot asks for a favor, Craig’s character doesn’t refuse. Jimmy wants him to find the long-lost cokehead daughter of an old friend (Michael Gambon) and broker a deal with a guy called The Duke (Jamie Foreman) who’s just brought in a shipment of a million Ecstasy pills. The Duke, a blinged-out clown who you just know became a gangster to compensate for some anatomical inferiority, is exactly the sort of criminal that our main character likes to avoid. His instincts prove true — those pills lead to major trouble with some Serbian badasses.
Adapting a novel by J.J. Connolly, first-time director Matthew Vaughn comes from the producing side of the movie business, having worked behind the scenes for Guy Ritchie’s big hits. Inside looks at the drug trade are nothing new, but Vaughn unspools his narrative with a silky elegance and makes the territory seem fresh. The flaws seem to be script-based; the subplot that has the nameless antihero falling for a hot chick (Sienna Miller) feels like it’s been shoehorned in from a whole other film, and the movie indulges in many cheap dramatic ironies in its unsuccessful attempts to find a proper ending.
There is a trump card, though, in Craig. The most buzz this craggy-looking Englishman ever generated was when his name recently came up as a potential future James Bond. That’s because his performances to date have been solid rather than spectacular, but if you step back and look at the range of his roles, you’ll see his tremendous versatility — as an unhappily kept gay man in Love Is the Devil, a weaselly American gangster in Road to Perdition, a lionized poet in Sylvia, a blank-faced stud in The Mother, a guilt-stricken intellectual in Enduring Love. Here he brings a great deal of intelligence and tough-minded common sense to his portrayal of the main character. The work takes the nameless dealmaker to many corners of English society, and Craig’s street smarts make him a compelling guide through this world. He does his part to hold this Layer Cake together. If only the filmmakers had been able to follow his lead.

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