Icy cool gangster saga shows that Brits can be bad boys too.
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Cast: Daniel Craig, Tom Hardy, Michael Gambon, Colm Meaney
As Americans, we love our criminal figures--from Billy the Kid to Bonnie & Clyde to 50 Cent. But we've got nothing on the Brits. The English worship their gangsters with a chic that borders on high fashion. From the gritty gangster films of the '70s (Get Carter, The Long Good Friday) to today's trendy, Tarantino-inspired films of Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch), Brits have made the gun-toting, suit-wearing mobster a national icon, right alongside the London Bobby and the soccer hooligan.
Layer Cake is the latest gangster saga to join this long and hallowed cinematic tradition. It dutifully follows all the usual tropes of the genre, but it's got that extra intangible something that lifts it above the crowd.
For starters, it stars Daniel Craig. So far, Mr. Craig's biggest claim to international fame had been appearing opposite Angelina Jolie in the first Tomb Raider movie. (Where, I can assure you, he was not the center of attention.) Recently, though, the pale-eyed, slate-faced, Steve McQueenish Brit has been suggested as the leading candidate to take over the James Bond franchise. Personally, I still think he's a better villain than hero, but he does make a convincing argument for leading man status in Layer Cake.
Craig plays the film's protagonist, a conservative middle-management drug dealer identified only as XXXX. (He declines to give his name to the audience.) Like a great many criminal kingpins before him, XXXX narrates his own story, doing his best to curry favor from the viewers. He makes a good case. He is, after all, only a businessman. The way he sees it, drugs will one day be made legal and will be sold at exorbitant prices under designer labels. Our man is just trying to make his nut before the bubble bursts. He pays his bills on time, never gets too greedy and hasn't even made any enemies. Life for our protagonist is, in his words, “so sweet I can taste it in my spit.” He's even considering retiring early on the comfortable and well-laundered nest egg he's built up for himself. But, as we know from watching so many of these criminal sagas, anyone who's talking about “retirement” is opening himself up to a serious world of hurt.
Sure enough, XXXX's boss, Jimmy Price (Gangster No. 1's Kenneth Cranham) asks a little favor. A rich pal's bad news daughter has taken it on the lam from a rehab clinic and is now palling around with some of London's seedier crack dealers. Jimmy wants our antihero to hunt down this young girl. XXXX, who insists he's no detective, bristles at the task. But, clearly, our man is in no position to argue. He's got to find her.
From this point on, things spin exponentially out of control. It also seems that one of London's major drug suppliers has ripped off several million pounds worth of ecstasy from some nasty Serbian drug peddlers. Naturally, the Serbs send a no-nonsense headchopper (literally) to take care of business. And, naturally, XXXX finds himself caught in the middle, playing a dangerous game of “who do you trust?”
The plot of Layer Cake, taken from the novel by J.J. Connolly, is a dense affair, requiring strict attention to a multitude of characters, subplots, crosses, double-crosses and possibly triple-crosses. (Not to mention assorted Cockney accents.) Freshman director Matthew Vaughn (a producer on Guy Ritchie's films who is suddenly poised to direct X-Men 3) pilots the whole project with confidence. He avoids the hipster flash of Ritchie's madcap crime films and settles into traditional dark-n-seedy territory punctuated by the occasional burst of ultra-cinematic style. His constant trickery with time and place, for example, is clever and disorienting.
At the end of the day, Layer Cake doesn't add much of anything new to the British gangster genre. It lacks the psychotic sizzle of Sexy Beast or the grimy realism of Mona Lisa. Even so, it's got a timeless storyline, a winning cast (Colm Meaney and Michael Gambon? Yes, please!) and its own icy gangster chic style. Sweet, indeed.