Layer Cake Review
“Welcome to the layer cake, son.”
A wimpish, pre-Bond Daniel Craig turns in a magnificent performance as the nameless drug-dealing anti-hero of Matthew Vaughn's exquisitely crafted and scripted Brit-gangster flick, Layer Cake. Deconstructing the nasty scumbag conventions of such a character, Craig imbues Mr. X (as he is billed) with immense everyman charm, a double-helping of “Why me?” persecution, and enough street-smart, think-on-your-toes savvy to give the genre a clever and energetic smack round the chops. Figuring that he has just one more big deal to clinch and then be able to retire to a life of luxury, X is reluctant to take on board an off-kilter last job for his boss to locate his missing daughter, a task that will mean calling in favours from numerous lowlifes and jettisoning the safety bubble that has, so far, cushioned his dodgy lifestyle. But what seems like a simple enough mission becomes a disaster of monumental proportions as unlooked-for complications conspire to drag him down to the lowest rung of the criminal ladder and bring him into contact with types far more dangerous than his usual clientele.
The tale, adapted by screenwriter J.J. Connelly from his own novel, is justifiably convoluted and full of differing plot-strands and myriad motivations that will all conspire to collide, confuse and coalesce, whilst simultaneously unravelling and pulling the rug out from under you. This is the sort of story that demands you pay attention, not because it will help you decipher the underhanded underworld that it coils itself around and exploits, but because there are so many delicious vignettes and situations that Mr. X and his motley band of associates find themselves in that a wayward mind could easily miss some canny contrivance or snappy twist. Very much of the Guy Ritchie ilk of modern urban gangsterism - everybody is a baddie, of sorts, and double or triple-crossing is the accepted vogue - the story is a blend of the hard-hitting and the rib-tickling. Head-hunting nutters are upstaged by mobile phone sarcasm, Scouse drug-dealers (familiar faces from Brookside Louis Emerick and Stephen Walters) use gesticulations and jargon like weapons, cockney wide-boys make plastic threats and dress like Del Boy on an extremely bad day, a warehouse stakeout becomes a Keystone Cops homage, lauded thespians turn malicious and, throughout it all, carving his persona with a mellifluous voice of unknown accent, and a demeanour that can flick from fierce calm to think-whilst-you-panic desperation, Daniel Craig walks tall and supreme, grounding the film with a cerebral yet theatrical foundation.
Despite a terrific supporting cast, he owns this film.
As is becoming customary, Craig again brings intensity to the role. Intelligent and confident in his dealings, he seems to have an answer, or a back-up policy for any eventuality. He knows his place in the grand scheme of things and is not too arrogant to forget just how precarious his seat of power really is. People that shouldn't be crossed depend on him and, as finite and professional as he is with his shady trade, events can still spiral out of control if some eager and greedy hands take a chance and dive into the pot. Such is the deadly predicament he finds himself in when a huge consignment of pills go missing and his hallmarks are all over the deal. Pretty soon, a Serbian hitman called Dragan, rival gangs, a clinically tenacious overseer (the great Michael Gambon), a chaotically off-the-rails mobster (the equally great Kenneth Cranham) and his own desperate buddies are going to have Mr. X over a barrel. It seems everybody wants a piece of him ... and that carefully planned early retirement he so dreamed of looks like crumbling to dust before his very eyes.
To elaborate further on the plot would be a grave disservice to what is one of the finest thrillers Britain has produced in recent years. Witty, exciting and shot through with an ominous sense of dark, sliding menace, Layer Cake packs a punch as emotional as it is visceral. That it also engages the brain is another ace up its already crowded sleeve. As events tumble towards their finale, it is hard not become excited by what Hannibal Smith from The A-Team would no doubt describe as “a plan coming together,” but each scalpel-sharp trick that the script plays, the film ducking and weaving with a devious dexterity that must have been both a gas and a curse to construct, still leaves us on edge and unsure as to exactly who is going to come out on top. Fast and conversational, the relationships between all these eclectic characters are verbal campaigns of bluff and deceit, tall-talk and whining excuses. There is only one poker face amongst the lot of them and, when the dust settles, the ultimate pay-off is both soul-destroying and yet elevating at the same time. Clever stuff. As viewers, we are just as manipulated as our main man - his minor victories along the way shared by us, his tension and anxieties acutely experienced by proxy, too. Film such as this have taught to trust absolutely no-one, but it is hard not to empathise with X's maddening plight. Like the tragic Carlito Brigante in DePalma's superb Carlito's Way (which this film pays homage in more ways than one), X is a bad guy who just wants to make enough money to go straight and be legit. We know that to him it is just business, he doesn't want to hurt anyone, but circumstances, and associates, won't let him off the hook. When you are in too deep, your choices are limited and, therefore, your actions, however well-intentioned, will become drastic and self-destructive.
“Oh yeah ... driving a bright yellow Range Rover ... very subtle.”
With stalwart support from a vibrant cast that includes the supremely sensual Sienna Miller as party-girl Tammy, who just has the hots for Mr. X - the sex-tease phone-call is guaranteed to catch the breath of any male viewer let alone the hot-to-trot Craig - the excellent George Harris as X's staunch, yet troubled second-in-command Morty, and Dexter Fletcher's duplicitous bent copper, the film would have been strong enough. But when Michael Gambon's sharp-suited and psychologically-incisive crime kingpin, Eddie Temple, lays down the law, with that superlative diction and eerily nonchalant air of his, he asserts total and convincing dominance over his nefarious realm. Nothing could phase this guy, and his studied politeness only barely masks a rich and potent vein of obsessional malice. By contrast, Kenneth (forever Harvey Moon) Cranham's gullible gangster's love of status, wealth and power is a front to his innate insecurities, his burst blood-vein tantrums adding immense pressure to an already volatile performance as Jimmy Price. Colm Meaney proves his worth as a firm and dependable confederate to X, though in one of the script's many great quirks can prove to be just as dangerous to our hero as the terrifying, death-dealing Dragan.
Craig's dislike of guns is a great piece of incidental character-play when you consider who he would later go on to portray with such ballistic vigour. The scene when Colm Meaney's Gene opens a cabinet to show off his collection of firearms and X, initially revolted by the sight of them, becomes transfixed by a German Luger and then play-acts stealthily around the room in pure Bondian parody is an absolute hoot. The aftermath of his enforced use of the gun is the exact opposite of this childlike excitement, however, with Craig's character reduced to a whisky and pill-chasing, soul-blighted wreck. Matthew Vaughn, having learned so much from his time with Guy Ritchie on Lock, Stock and Snatch, keeps a dark but delicious edge to such scenes, spiking the effortlessly sublime and involving atmosphere with moments that are shocking, impactful and blisteringly wry. Past events will have repercussions on the direction the characters are heading in and arrangements made in the present are sure to bounce back with a vengeance as the story unfolds. When death comes to Layer Cake, it is violent but necessary, and understandable, too - the café beating is utterly horrible yet even here there is a valid reason behind the head-stomping and the face-scalding - lending the film a prevailing unpredictability that makes every confrontation icily tense. Despite many comic interludes, there is a deep threat to the proceedings that cannot fail to keep you on your toes. We get to know these people and we like them. They are, indeed, fun to hang around with. But it would have been a mistake to leave out the risky and intimidating nature of their world and it is rare film, indeed, that can mix intense character-study, intricate narrative, witty wordplay and pulverising mayhem into such smooth, rich texture. Scorsese did it with Goodfellas, the Coen Brothers did it with the simply awesome Miller's Crossing, though, of course, the Brits did it first with John Mackenzie's The Long Good Friday.
“You're a bright young man, this monkey business is in your blood. You're not getting out - you're just getting in.”
No matter how complicated things get, the screenplay still manages to dot all the i's and cross all the t's. It may be gritty in places and deal with a lot of unsavoury people and situations, but Layer Cake is still basically a farce - a series of mishaps and misunderstandings that all come together to create one big, chaotic jumble of dilemmas. Its charm, however, is strung into one continuous loop by Daniel Craig. The man is a powerhouse of reigned-in charisma and, alongside his turns in Road To Perdition and Enduring Love, it is no surprise that he landed the part of James Bond. Even here, when the noose tightens around his neck and things Mr. X has no control over, or even comprehension of, close in on him, Craig finds order and serenity amidst the escalating danger. His conversations with Dragon are priceless - the best being the first and most abrupt one, when he simply asks the assassin if he knows his address and when Dragan doesn't, tells him to eff off. His effortless manipulating of the Duke's nephew, Sidney, is so understated that you may not even realise what he is doing. But there is a ruthless vulnerability to him as well, that has us genuinely pleased that he seems to get the girl and then genuinely heartbroken and shell-shocked when he ends up dangling over the edge of a roof instead of dangling over the duvet with her. Bond's furious fist and foot salvos wouldn't have gone amiss, either, as Mr X, similar to Gabriel Byrne's Tommy Reagan in Miller's Crossing, seems to be forever on the wrong end of a beating.
Vaughn's style of filmmaking is refreshingly skewed away from Guy Ritchie's, despite the usual Lock, Stock and Snatch comparisons being made. Layer Cake, in actual fact, has little in common with the two prior British mobster flicks, striking its own path through the scheming, double-crossing treacherous quagmire of organised crime. Visually, the film is very slick and dynamic. Excellent photography takes in the most diverse and un-flashy of settings and locations, yet paints them all with atmospheric lighting and moody angles that can often remain impassive and observant, yet at other times, pitch you in with shocking immediacy. London looks amazing, shot through with mean blues and greens and a wide aspect. Expansive locations, such as warehouses, the clubhouse or Eddie's mansion, supply room for the film to breathe. Whilst up north, we get a squalid flat and a bridge overlooking a motorway. But the film always looks vital and engrossing, perfectly matching the tight script and the terrific performances.
An excellent thriller, folks, and one that I recommend very highly indeed ... but don't be fooled by that Bondian cover shot of Craig on the package. He is most certainly not rehearsing for 007 duties with Layer Cake!