Written by J.J. Connolly who adapted his own novel, and directed by Matthew Vaughn, 2004’s Layer Cake is a slick, more nuanced take on the modern British crime film style made famous by Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, each of which Vaughn produced. Here, a pre-James Bond Daniel Craig is a cerebral, well-heeled young drug dealer whose little corner of the underworld gets blown apart by the dirty business of drugs and money.
LAYER CAKE: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: Slinging drugs like cocaine (or “charlie” in the parlance of British slang) is just a business enterprise for the unnamed protagonist of Layer Cake, played with suave elan by Daniel Craig. He doesn’t like to get his hands dirty with all that criminal monkey business, and so his insulation includes Morty (George Harris), a right hand man with crime firm connections who isn’t afraid of a little wet work, his in-house chemist Clarkie (Tom Hardy), and general-purpose muscle Terry (Tamer Hassan). The kilos are prepped, they flow out the door, the cash comes back, and our protagonist pays it up the bad guy food chain to big boss Jimmy (Kenneth Cranham) through his consigliere Gene (Colm Meaney).
With his stash of laundered money and smug detachment, XXXX is preparing his escape route from the drug biz when everything suddenly, inevitably goes haywire. A rival crew, a considerably less suave one run by the Duke (a bug-eyed Jamie Forman) and his girlfriend Slasher (Sally Hawkins, channeling a street-level Melanie C of the Spice Girls), ropes XXXX into some dangerous business with a bulk shipment of contraband ecstasy and the Serbian militiamen the Duke jacked it from. Gene and Jimmy aren’t happy, the Duke and his firm are in hiding, and bodies are starting to pile up. Add to that Eddie (Michael Gambon), a mysterious, very tan rich guy playing his own long game, and alluring femme fatale Tammy (Sienna Miller), and the protagonist’s plan for a smooth, clean exit suddenly feels like a foolish dream from just a few days prior.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of? Layer Cake‘s take on the cheeky Brit crime caper has its share of gangland slang, its handful of different crime crews peppering their speech with references to “skint,” “cozzers,” and “bunce.” But unlike those Ritchie films, its characters don’t feel like outsized animations or placeholder caricatures. It brings to mind another British crime film on the quieter side, Roger Donaldson’s The Bank Job (2008), with a standout performance from Jason Statham in a heist movie based on the 1971 Baker Street robbery in London.
Performance Worth Watching: As Morty, George Harris keeps his large frame composed and expressive eyes full of wary, watchful menace as he drives around London with XXXX in his Audi Quatro wagon, looking for a way out of their predicament. And when an old rival resurfaces, Monty becomes something quite less than composed in a brilliant beat-down sequence set to Duran Duran’s “Ordinary World.”
Memorable Dialogue: Fittingly for a film adapted from a novel, Layer Cake opens with an extended monologue from our nameless dealer, who espouses on the method and practice of the drug game. It’s a thriving modern business that sells an in-demand product, but one with a finite end, too, once the government sorts out legalization. “But this is now,” he tells us in voiceover. “So while prohibition lasts, make hay while the sun shines. I’m not a gangster. I’m a businessman whose commodity happens to be cocaine. I mean, ten years ago, a bit of charlie was for pop stars or a celebrity’s birthday bash. It was demonized by Daily Mail readers getting drunk in naff wine bars. Now they’re my biggest clients.”
Sex and Skin: Sienna Miller and Daniel Craig get down to their bare essentials during a hotel meet-up, but XXXX is abducted by thugs before the real action begins.
Our Take: With its raft of inventive camera and editing work — sweeping pans between people and locations, observing a conversation from beneath a glass coffee table, and a brutal beating that takes the point-of-view of the bloke getting mashed — Layer Cake consistently enlivens its proceedings, which otherwise most often feature one group of bad people arguing with their opposite number. It’s also compelling that those arguments are full of naturalism between the ensembles — these guys are friends, comrades in grift; it follows that any result of their actions would be entirely selfish. We’re enveloped in the crime game from the start of Layer Cake — regular squares living the straight life don’t figure into it.
With its little criminal world sufficiently built, Layer Cake sets about tidily destroying it. The Serbs are particularly nasty in the way they dispatch rivals, and it’s fun to watch Craig shuttle through fretting, protestations, assurances, and finally steely determination as XXXX’s layers of insulation are steadily ripped up. The supporting cast is full of fine early-career performances, including those of Hawkins, Hardy, Miller, and in particular Burn Gorman (Game of Thrones, The Expanse) as a loudmouth low-level gangster named Gazza. It’s also clear from Craig’s work here how keen the Bond braintrust must have been on casting him as 007 — he’s poised, charming, quick with the right words for the job, and looks damn good in a suit. Layer Cake is such a satisfying watch, it’s curious that the adaptation of Connolly’s follow-up novel Viva La Madness apparently never got off the ground, even though Statham was once slated to take over the protagonist’s role from Craig.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Daniel Craig is cool and compelling as the protagonist who just might be too smart for his own good, and Layer Cake‘s tight plotting piles on the increasingly dicey crime film conventions with aplomb.
Johnny Loftus is an independent writer and editor living at large in Chicagoland. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media, and Nicki Swift. Follow him on Twitter: @glennganges
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