Layer Cake (2005): Matthew Vaughn’s Directing Debut, Starring Daniel Craig

Far more complex than most American drug-trafficking movies, “Layer Cake,” as its title suggests, is a mutli-layered thriller set in the drug underworld of the U.K.

Matthew Vaughn, better known as the producer of “Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch,” makes a lukewarm directorial debut in a feature that’s better written than staged. Lacking an interesting visual style to match the intriguing narrative, “Layer Cake” suffers from abrupt cutting and rough changes from one locale to another.

Fortunately, the ensemble, headed by Daniel Craig, and including some of the best character actors working in British cinema today (Colm Meaney, Michael Gambon), elevates the film at least a notch above its pedestrian direction.

Craig plays the unnamed hero, a sleek, well-dressed, usually polite middleman, who would like to believe he is a consummate professional and smarter than those around him. Treating cocaine and ecstasy like any other commodity, he has made a fortune for himself by keeping his hands clean and staying under the radar.

Having made the decision to retire, his goal is to break free from the world of crime, drugs, and violence and live a simple, quiet life with the money he has amassed. We the viewers know better, namely, that there is no easy way out and that our hero is bound for a downfall.

Before his dream life can materialize, crime boss Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham) asks for two favors. First, he must track down the missing, drug addict daughter of the Eddie (Michael Gambon), the powerful criminal. Second, he must negotiate the sale of a huge shipment of ecstasy with the Duke (Jamie Foreman), a loose cannon petty crook playing well out of his league, who went to Amsterdam and stole the pills from Slavo the Serb.

What seems like a routine transaction is anything but, and, as is often the case in such films, nothing goes according to the original plan. Instead, duplicitous coalitions and hidden alliances form and dissolve in a struggle for power that reaches from the crack dens of London to the highest rank of British society.

Gradually, the protg learns that he is part of a machine much greater and more dangerous than he had ever imagined, and that getting out won’t be quite as easy as getting in. The lessons learnt along the way are intriguing enough to propel the plot, and the use of first person narration, that comments on the action, adds a nourish layer to the proceedings, turning the hero into a classic fall guy.

A metaphor for different levels of British society, “Layer Cake” shows how drugs have infiltrated almost every social stratum, not jut the crime world. Rather cynically, the film says that, no matter who or where you are, you are only one person away from drugs, scoring drugs or being involved with criminals.
This becomes clear in a speech at the end of the film, when the Layer Cake is used as a metaphor for life, with people going up and up, but also up and down, from one layer of the cake and to the next.

Contesting the stereotypes that have depicted criminals and drug dealers in movies (American and British), “Layer Cake” portrays them as “normal” people who treat drugs like any other business; some of them could pass as legit stockbrokers. It just happens that their commodity is cocaine.

There’s a sharp, ironic contrast between the characters’ self-perceptions and who they really are. When the movie begins, most of the figures view themselves as the big cheese, the “proper stuff” as one of them says, but as the tale progresses, it becomes clear that most of them are quite low down on the list.

For author J.J. Connoly, upon whose novel the film is based, the writing process was also like a layer cake. It began with a short a story about the unnamed lead character, and it grew and grew into a Layer Cake. The 400-page book has been trimmed down to a manageable script for a two-hour movie, though occasionally the narrative feels rushed, as if whole chapters and episodes were excised for the sake of brevity.

Under the hands of a more experienced and stylish director, “Layer Cake” could have been a more stylish and smoother picture, but debuting helmer Matthew Vaughn lacks the necessary technical skills. The end result is a sharply uneven film, lacking unified conception and visual style; it’s too much of a patchwork.

In the press notes, producer David Reid acknowledges that “there’s an enormous jump from book to script, we cut masses out and amalgamated a lot of stuff.” Indeed, at its current shape, “Layer Cake” feels very much like a writer’s film, with strong and twisty plot inhabited by colorful characters.

Craig (“Sylvia,” “The Mother”), who looks like a young and rougher Steve McQueen, is well cast as the unnamed hero, giving a commanding performance in a difficult role. His character not only lacks a name (he’s referred to as XXXX) but also background to draw upon. There are no back-story, no clues, and no signifiers as to where he’s from.

Craig plays him as a poker player (like a dude in a Clint Eastwood actioner) who, no matter what’s going around him, he remains cool, never reveals feelings or thoughts. However, although he is an anonymous figure, we are drawn to him due to his good looks, smarts, and charm.

As Eddie Temple, the more successful gambler, the brilliant British thesp Michael Gambon brings gravity to his modern gangster character. Eddie’s gone upmarket, he’s more civilized, goes to the opera, and lives in a big Georgian house in London. But though he has done well and is very rich now, deep down he’s still a killer.

The film’s coda is both logical and satisfying. XXXX’s golden rule, “Always avoid the people who are noisy and loud and brash and flash and gaudy, because theyre just going to get you nicked,” resonates strongly when the end credits roll down.