Following the success of Guy Ritchie’s “Lock, Stock and two Smoking Barrels” in 1998, the British film industry found itself overrun with tales of London gangsters, most of which were sadly made with little thought to creativity, instead relying on flashy designer violence and supposedly cheeky charm to justify their existence. Into this stale state of affairs comes “Layer Cake”, a film about a London drug dealer who attempts to extricate himself from the criminal underworld. The film, not helped by such an overly familiar premise, is made to seem all the more incestuous by the fact that it is directed by Mathew Vaughn, who has previously worked as producer on all of Guy Ritchie’s crime capers.
Given such unfavourable omens, it is an extremely pleasant surprise to find that “Layer Cake” is an excellent film, far superior to the vast majority of its peers, and one of the best British efforts of the last few years. Combining an engaging and intricate plot and well-written characters, slick visuals and a liberal dose of realistic brutality, the film stands as an expertly executed thriller which deserves recognition beyond the confines of its overpopulated genre.
Adapted from his own novel by J.J Connolly, “Layer Cake” follows an unnamed cocaine dealer (played by Daniel Craig, who until now has been a bit player in films such as “Enduring Love” and “Road to Perdition”) planning an early retirement from a life of crime. Far from being a typical thug, Craig’s character sees himself as a businessman, living an ordered, modest life and resolutely avoiding violence. Unfortunately, his best efforts to move on are thwarted and he finds himself dragged into a murderous conspiracy involving the theft of a huge shipment of ecstasy pills, as well as having thrust upon him a mysterious assignment involving the missing daughter of a high profile businessman (veteran actor Michael Gambon).
Although the above does indeed sound like a fairly typical plot for the genre, “Layer Cake” benefits from a raw, nihilistic approach to the criminal underworld. Instead of the stereotypical and loyal well-dressed gangsters who are forced into acts of violence by cruel fate, the film is populated by a disparate bunch of cold, calculating manipulators whose allegiance is distinctly negotiable. All of the main characters are given a pleasing amount of depth and their own motivations, which means that the shaky alliances formed during the film are all the more believable and compelling.
Crucially, the central protagonist is well fleshed out, with a compelling development arc, and so the viewer genuinely comes to care what happens to him. This makes a huge change from the usually frivolous nature of gangster films, whose characters often only exist for the purpose of violent set pieces or pointless tracts about faux-brotherhood. The plot itself is cunningly crafted, and manages to suck the viewer into its shady world right from the start, with a fantastic eye for the smaller details of the criminal life that adds an air of authenticity. As the film progresses, there are betrayals and back stabbings galore, meaning that the narrative is at times somewhat convoluted, though cleverly so, and in a way which makes the film, if not exactly unpredictable, at least highly satisfying.
Vaughn proves to be an excellent director, managing to combine Ritchie’s preferred use of gimmicky visuals and anecdotal storytelling with a more traditional cinematic approach. The result is a film which is slick and glossy, yet decidedly edgy and hardboiled in a way that brings the story and characters to life in a convincing and entertaining fashion. Vaughn directs with a mature assurance rarely seen in debut films, and tells the story confidently, utilising some highly original techniques without letting them drown the film in the music video stylings which have sadly become all too common in recent years. One scene in particular, involving the vicious beating of a disloyal ex-con, is breathtakingly cinematic, switching between different perspectives to perfectly accentuate its brutality.
The pace of “Layer Cake” is kept fast and lean, and though there are only a handful of action set pieces, Vaughn manipulates them for maximum adrenaline and impact, giving them a genuinely visceral feel and providing a real sense of danger and threat throughout the film. Along with the twisting plot and excellent, writing, it is this vicious, human edge which makes “Layer Cake” such enjoyable and compulsive viewing, and firmly marks Vaughn as a talent to watch.
Matthew Vaughn (director) / J.J. Connolly (screenplay)
CAST: Daniel Craig …. XXXX
Tom Hardy …. Clarkie
Jamie Foreman …. Duke
Garry Tubbs …. Brian
Nathalie Lunghi …. Charlie
Sienna Miller …. Tammy