Layer Cake (2004)

One day you're up in the rarefied atmosphere and you've forgotten what shit even looks like

Matthew Vaughn rode the post-Tarantino tsunami of indie crime cinema, and has leveraged it into a very industrious Hollywood career. Layer Cake, his debut film, stars a young Daniel Craig as an unnamed drug dealer who gets embroiled in a deal gone wrong. Vaughn brings some frothy fun to the proceeding, but it ultimately is a nondescript, bland effort aside from a handful of striking elements.

The film’s biggest strength is the breakout performance of Craig: He is ludicrously handsome and inviting, bringing some physicality and mystery to the role, perfect for the down-to-business character at the center of a storm. It provides a great template for the version of James Bond that he’d play. I’m not sure there are any direct sources confirming it, but it’s widely understood that Layer Cake served as an audition tape for Casino Royale.

The most direct antecedent to Layer Cake is Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, another English gangster film with slick stylization and a zippy pace, one that Vaughn produced and Guy Ritchie directed in 1998. It’s been years since I’ve seen Lock Stock, but you honestly could have convinced me that this was a Ritchie picture. The style is not as sharp here as in Ritchie’s early films, with more emphasis on its neo-noir-esque plot than with the flashy exuberance I associate with most Trainspotting knock-offs, including Ritchie’s.

This slightly more serious tack hurts Layer Cake: it basically demands we take its characters and story seriously. The narrative is a bit convoluted, pulling beats from heist stories without the fun caper sweep of something like Ocean’s Eleven. Some parts of the story land — for example, I found Craig’s affair with Tammy (Sienna Miller) a compelling conflict that I wish had more than two scenes to it, as it provides the crucial crack in Craig’s business-only attitude. The central plot centers around the theft of a huge cache of ecstasy pills that turn out to be nicked from a very powerful adversary, and Craig’s attempt to recover the contraband. The story pulls in a huge cast of players, with lots of double-crossing and allegiance changes that mostly land with a fizzle.

What works better than the script is the charisma of the cast. Craig, as mentioned, is outstanding, but he’s not the only one: Tom Hardy has a small but memorable part, a slightly deranged Sally Hawkins lights up the screen like a slot machine, and Michael Gambon steals multiple scenes with some operatic line readings.

The film ends with a wacky middle finger to the audience that would have created a much stronger impression had the movie figured out how to get us to care more about the fate of Craig’s nameless protagonist than it does. As it plays, though, it’s a real head-scratcher that upends the otherwise breezy tone of the conclusion.

Layer Cake is entertaining enough for the duration, but never quite makes a strong case for its existence. This problem — the big “why” — bothers me more in crime stories than other genres like comedies or interpersonal dramas both because of personal preference (I’d rather watch two people talk to each other for 90 minutes about not much than two uninteresting criminals botch a job, but I suspect most people are the opposite) and because baseline comedy and drama are built around getting the audience to invest in characters. Layer Cake doesn’t have anything to buy into. It’s all scenario, no heart. And so I can’t recommend it even though it’s modest fun for the duration.

Is It Good?

Nearly Good (4/8)

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3 replies on “Layer Cake (2004)”

I’m about on the same page. I love “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch,” and “Layer Cake” always struck me as an attempt to capture the same energy without the humour and whimsy.

I recall this film as fairly good, but not really my sort of thing (In fact I can only recall bits and pieces, especially Mr Michael Gambon’s kingpin).

Incidentally, I’ve always been acutely disappointed Mr Daniel Craig has yet to play a Viking, despite having a face that makes me think his yacht is actually a longship …

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