A film review by Craig J. Koban



Rank: #25


2005, R, 105 mins.

XXXX: Daniel Craig / Gene: Colm Meaney / Jimmy Price: Kenneth Cranham / Morty: George Harris / Duke: Jamie Foreman / Eddie Temple: Michael Gambon / Terry: Tamer Hassan / Sidney: Ben Whishaw / Gazza: Burn Gorman / Slasher: Sally Hawkins / Tammy: Sienna Miller

Directed by Matthew Vaughn /  Written by J.J. Connolly

Many recent reviews of the new British crime/gangster picture – LAYER CAKE – have taken great pains to draw comparisons between that picture and the works of Martin Scorsese, most notably GOODFELLAS, the best gangster film ever made, and CASINO, not as great as GOODFELLAS, but still a step above all others in the genre.  After sitting through LAYER CAKE and digesting all of its harshness and penchant for unapologetic violence, appealing characters, and morose comedy, I feel that the film has more in tune with an unappreciated Brian DePalma gem – CARLITO’S WAY.  

LAYER CAKE, much like GOODFELLAS and CASINO, features a relative smorgasbord of lowlifes, tells several stories of many key characters, and has a strong sense of an overall story and pacing.  However, despite those parallels, LATER CAKE owes more to CARLITO’S WAY in the sense that both films are about main characters that engage in highly dubious careers and are incredibly talented at what they do.  Furthermore, both films offer us characters that, despite their success in their lifestyles and trade, have inevitably decided that they want out and desire to go “straight”.  However, both men in these films are inextricably drawn back into the world they want to escape from due to circumstances that are beyond their control and, in essence, place their lives and those they care about in absolute peril. 

Yet - not to dismiss those other critics -  but the main character in LAYER CAKE (played in a real star making performance by Daniel Craig, a supposed front runner for the open position of James Bond) is like Henry Hill in many respects.  Both he and Hill narrate their respective films and both criminals find great worth and satisfaction in what they do and how they go about doing it.  In GOODFELLAS Hill sort of lovingly recounts the early glory days of gangsterhood and how his aspirations to become a member of that cherished fraternity was beyond enticing.  Then, when he finally achieves mafia VIP status, he can’t think of another possible way he wishes to lead his life, that is until he gets in too deep with the wrong people and eventually sees his world spiral devilishly out of control.  Daniel Craig’s character experiences the same level of euphoria as Hill did and, inescapably, finds his life slowly snowballing downward to new lows.  Craig deals drugs (like Hill) and is remarkably good at it. The problem with him is that just when he wants out, he gets himself back in and in so, so deep that he has a difficult time even crawling his way back out.

LAYER CAKE, one of the year’s more involving and entertaining gangster flicks, is yet another in a solid string of crime/caper films from the UK.  Guy Ritchie’s fantastic LOCK, STOCK, AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS clearly started the momentum for these types of gritty, British portrayals of the underbelly of society.  His follow-up film, SNATCH, was another effective escapade into the seedier elements of society.  LAYER CAKE, which obviously has flown in on the coattails of Ritchie’s success, is ironically the strongest of the three.  It’s the most wickedly droll and darkly whimsical.  It s also directed with an assured eye that is inventive and clever that buries the film in a rather ingenious narrative that reminds the viewer that the underworld is often best left experienced personally by the viewer on screen.  Any film that is able to be such a corrosive combination of vile and evil betrayals, thrilling suspense, wickedly droll humor, and has a colorful assortment of thugs and creeps with nicknames like Crazy Larry, The Duke, Mr. Lucky and …yes…XXXX can’t be altogether boring. 

Craig, of course, plays the main character, who is never referred to by name at any time in the film (the end credits list his character’s name as XXXX, which maybe makes him ¼ more powerful and ruthless than Vin Diesel’s XXX, but I digress).  Craig’s performance, one of the best and most mesmerizing of the year, acts as an effective foil to the rest of the film’s hardcore violence and flamboyant excesses in style.  Beyond those cagey, icy cold blue eyes essentially lies the ultimate pragmatist and Craig’s performance gives this sometimes over-the-top crime farce a realistic heartbeat.  Like Henry Hill, we can relate to this man’s level of personal self-actualization, especially when he recounts at the beginning of the film how glorious his life is and how successful he has become.  This, evidently, allows the audience to buy into him that much more when we later want to empathize with him when he hits rock bottom. 

XXXX is a man of all business.  He reveals his secrets of success like one of those smooth talking infomercial types would in one of those late night ads that tries to succinctly spell out their hidden methods to achieving fame and wealth and holding on to it.  In essence, XXXX drives his freight train to fame and prestige with simple motions – get to know your customers and respect them, never leave a debt unchecked, be able to respond to your suppliers and work effectively with them, and never…ever…get too greedy to the point where it could jeopardize your entire operation.  Like every good “business man”, XXXX has a simple, yet effective front business – real estate.  The beginning of the film establishes and reveals all of this rather effectively and simply.  Yet, XXXX is not just a drug dealer; he has a vision for his product for the future – “Always remember that one day all this drug monkey business will be legal. They won't leave it to people like me... not when they finally figure out how much money is to be made - not millions, f- -king billions. Recreational drugs PLC - giving the people what they want... Good times today, Stupor tomorrow.” 

He also has a vision to retire soon and lead a wealthy life without any level of the criminal carnality breathing down his neck.  Of course, this rather modest aspiration is quickly for naught as he finds himself summoned to a nearby private club for a special, emergency meeting with his immediate superior, Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham).  Jimmy is one of those old school Mafiosos that appears warm and congenial, but beneath his affable exterior lays a hard-boiled snake.  Anyway, Jimmy makes XXXX’s retirement a bit difficult, especially when he gives him a job that truly is a bit of a troublesome double-whammy.  First, he wants him to find the missing daughter of his boss, Eddie Temple (the always slimy and vile Michael Gambon). Secondly, he wants XXXX to sort out a drug deal that went south real fast and way too early for him.  Seeing that all XXXX wants to do is “get out”, he regrettably allows himself to be pulled back in. 

XXXX really has no desire to be involved in not one, but two messes, the kind of messy problems that, even on one of his worst days, he would never want to be a part of.  Being a man that has always prided himself on no risk taking and playing it as safe as possible at all times, the two jobs given by Jimmy represents placing him in situations that he desperately has avoided all of his life.  He really, really has issues with fixing the ecstasy deal gone badly.  Why?  Well, it appears that one of Jimmy’s deadbeats named The Duke (the crazy and very funny Jamie Forman) actually stole the ecstasy pills from a man with a reputation that is far from sterling.  The pills themselves have a street value of about a million pounds, and the malicious Serbs that he stole them from want them back, and they are definitely not the types to say “please” and “thank-you”.  In essence, if I follow the convoluted scheme correctly, Jimmy wants XXXX to nab the pills while the hapless Duke becomes a fall guy to the Serbs.  Sounds easy…right? 

XXXX will not go about his dangerous mission unchecked…or without sufficient backup for that matter.  He does have some pals that actually may be able to get his job done for him.  There is Gene (Colm Meaney…and what a meanie he is in the film) and Morty (George Harris) who also is not incapable of finding a mean streak within him.  To complicate matters even more for XXXX he manages to get involved with the wrong girl (they are always a presence in these types of films) played by the stunning Sienna Miller (Mr. Jude Law...what were you thinking?!).  To make matters even more dire for XXXX, twists upon more twists in the caper goes from bad to worst, friends become enemies, enemies become allies and back and forth again.  Worst of all, a terrible and ruthlessly cunning killer named (rather effectively)  Dragan is after XXXX.  This guy won’t be able to retire so easily, it seems. 

Matthew Vaughn, who worked previously on the other two Guy Ritchie films as a producer, directed LAYER CAKE with a carefree and visually inventive and catchy style.  J.J. Connolly wrote the film based on his own book of the same name.  LAYER CAKE is a great caper for many reasons, one of them being its incredible level of endurance and energy in not only the performances, but the pacing of the story itself. The rather imaginative and inspired narrative has one virtue of being a hell of a lot of fun, not to mention that it manages to be bleak, morbid, oftentimes very funny, and has enough twists and turns that efficiently leaves you guessing right until the very end.  The film also plays around with time and linear narrative structures not too much unlike PULP FICTION and it weaves and interweaves upon itself to eventually create a cohesive whole.  The film’s tone is also rather infectious – it’s self-reverential without being too overtly so and manages to provoke both chuckles and cringes with its remarkable wry and cynical observations about these eclectic and mentally warped criminals. 

Ultimately, LAYER CAKE works most expertly because of its focus on the characters and their interplay.  Daniel Craig’s role is more developed than you would otherwise see in one of these lavishly stylized gangster pictures, and he plays the role with a certain level of humility, intensity, vulnerability, and undeniable charm.  He is not your typical drug dealer that shoots first and asks questions later.  As a matter of fact, XXXX gets by on his social skills and despises guns (as revealed in one funny scene).  By no definition does he have a heart of gold, nor can anyone condone what he does as something that is worthwhile and noble (he never once realizes the lives he ruins with his “product” every single day).  Yet, XXXX is a cultured, suave, and sophisticated chap that is instantly likeable, which is a crucial ingredient to this film’s success.  Imagine a more manic and confused James Bond who was on the other side of the law and you’ll get the idea. 

LAYER CAKE misses the boat only on a few levels.  The Sienna Miller character is painfully underdeveloped and the narrative seems to have a small problem wrapping itself up to a swift conclusion (however, I did love the ending, which was equal parts darkly comical, happy, sad, and excruciatingly ironic all at the same time).  Yet, despite this, the film is a winning crime tale of degenerate scum.  It’s a highly polished and confident vision, and Vaughn behind the camera has a confident vision and presents it on screen with a level of assurance and distinctiveness.  Laced with an utterly intricate plot and many well drawn and realized characters, LAYER CAKE may fall shot of the greatness of GOODFELLAS or CARLITO’S WAY, but it's nevertheless a gangster saga whose wit, sharp dialogue, resourceful camera work, and involving story and main character make for a really pleasing and engaging ride.

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