Layer Cake is a British gangster flick whose posters say ‘from the producer of Snatch and Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels’ and indeed director Matthew Vaughn did work on those sub-genre defining films but it’s a bit of a sneaky ploy to splash that across the poster because this film is galaxies away from those two in terms of tone, style, pacing and overall fibre of content. Guy Ritchie’s Brit crime films (which I adore) are akin to Wonka’s factory all colour, swirl and flash but this one exists in something more like an upscale steakhouse and provides solid, grounded content to digest and work over later on. That’s not to say it isn’t without flair or flourish, there’s a lot of propulsive mayhem, cheerful dark humour, peppy British dialogue and menacing extreme violence but it just somehow feels… more down to earth.
Daniel Craig is a London coke trafficker credited simply as XXXX, a wry gesture that hits the mark because this guy, although far from anonymous, could be any one of us: a strait-laced, level headed dude who thinks he can tread around dangerous waters without getting his feet wet. Well there be dragons in those waters, dragons who have big plans for him in the form of various London underworld figures from brain dead, peacocky underlings to Machiavellian figureheads of immense, baroque and frightening power. His operation is funded and mother goosed by a wealthy thug called Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham in a study of pigheaded volatility), who scoffs at Craig’s plans of early retirement and tasks him with two seemingly simple tasks: 1) mediate a sizeable ecstasy transaction that is in danger of flying off the rails and 2) babysit the wayward druggie daughter of his own boss Freddie Temple (Michael Gambon basically playing the devil to the point of self referential glee), a man with whom you never want to fuck. Of course neither of these errands are cakewalks and things begin to viscously spiral spectacularly out of control in ironic, deliciously karmic fashion until it ain’t readily clear who’s betraying who, who wants what and who is simply wandering about in a narrative haze wondering what they did to deserve such a conniption fit of cacophonous roundabout shenanigans.
I don’t want to give the impression that this is an overly confusing or messily told tale because it’s not, it makes perfect and clear sense (like all these mad dash crime flicks) if you’re paying rigid attention or spin it through the DVD player more than once, it’s just refracted through a stylistic prism whose purpose is to befuddle, but that’s half the fun. Craig’s character is a terminally busy guy once things all kick off, so much so that not even getting to third base with a gorgeous lady friend (Sienna Miller) can stop him getting hauled out the door back to work (been there). He’s a smart guy in a sea of other guys who are either way smarter than him or way dumber, both species proving equally as dangerous. There’s his two mates Clarkie (a boyish Tom Hardy) and Morty (George Harris is superb) who race to keep up, Jimmy’s hotheaded righthand man Gene (Colm Meaney, who can’t sit still for two seconds, love his energy), one very angry Serb (Marcel Iures), a dirty cop (Dexter Fletcher) who comes in quite handy and all manner of other cretins and oddballs for our hero(?) to contend with. At the end of it you kind of sit there, in a daze and in the dust, wondering what kind of speeding locomotive just hit you, and kind of wishing it would turn 180 degrees on the tracks and come back for more as it was so much fucking fun. And the end? Well, let me just say that no American studio film would have the balls to pull a stunt like that and I was admittedly stung by it at first but when you think back to what kind of lifestyle Craig’s character leads, who he associates with (on purpose or by circumstance), his profession and exactly the kind of thing all these seasoned criminals warned him of, it makes sense as a sort of brutally poetic final thunderclap to his arc. Brilliant film.