Layer Cake, the new British gangster flick by Matthew Vaughn is heaped with layers — layers upon layers of plot twists and fast action, all made for the thrill of the crowd. It’s filmed in the same breakneck style as the movies Vaughn produced for director Guy Ritchie (Madonna’s husband), the same style for which there is now a movement afoot — with many a young Brit breathing “fresh air” into the gangster genre for a few years now.
It’s a bit reminiscent of the days when George Raft and Humphrey Bogart burst onto the American movie scene – bringing a toughness and edge that turned the film gangster into something really frightening (and a little bit sexy, too) Gone were the moustache-twisting evildoers of yesteryear who seemed as comical as they were dastardly. In their place came hardened villains and gritty antiheroes– men with troubles, men who were trouble – and a new genre was born.
Vaughn’s Layer Cake is written by JJ Connelly, who also wrote the novel, and follows a doomed antihero, who is essentially nameless in the film (try to watch it and find out his name) played by the lovely Daniel Craig. He tells us in voiceover as the movie begins that, though he deals drugs, he’s a businessman who’s built a tidy fortune heretofore invisible to law enforcement.
Just as he’s trying to “get out,” he gets pulled back in for one last deal – isn’t it always that “one last deal” that causes all the trouble? He’s given orders by a kingpin-type named Jimmy (Kenneth Cranham) to find the daughter of another even more powerful kingpin-type (Michael Gambon). He’s also asked to find a buyer for a truckload of stolen ecstasy tablets worth around $3 million. But ah, navigating through this one is like navigating through a shark tank with a wounded leg: everyone is desperate, everyone smells blood.
In Layer Cake, just as in Casablanca, life is cheap. One well-aimed bullet and it’s all over. No one gives a damn, particularly, if you live or die – and survival depends only on how well you play the game.
While our main character weaves skillfully in and out of various situations, he’s either very smart or very dumb. We see him encounter every level of the drug scene – from the desperate junkie to the mid-level dealer, to the boss and then his boss and finally his boss. The key, the film tells us, is to always be the middle man – to put people and deals together, but never be on either end — or else.
Even though we’re getting the story in voice over and we’re fairly sure our main character knows what he’s doing, there are so many layers on this cake that perhaps someone needed to leave it out in the rain for awhile. It took so long to bake it, it’s true, and they’ll never have that recipe again — but alas, it’s one tough mouthful to swallow all at once.
Layer Cake might require more than one viewing for the story to be completely understood – and maybe in those subsequent viewings something real and lasting will emerge beyond the surface flash. In one shot, though, it’s a bit too dizzying to be fully enjoyable.
One thing the film has going for it is its lead. Like Bogart, Craig doesn’t need a lot of dialogue to be captivating. Craig has recently been tapped as the new James Bond, beating out such brilliant actors as Clive Owen, and, judging from his tough guy in Layer Cake he is more than up to snuff.
In a smaller part is up-and-comer Sienna Miller, who plays the film’s only real love interest for the main character. The two of them come at love, though, the way the film comes at life – it is a shallow attraction, one driven entirely by visuals. He’s attracted to her, she to him, and that’s where it begins and ends.
It’s difficult to be moved by a film like Layer Cake, in which you never really get to know any of the characters and therefore can’t be particularly enthralled by them, or root for them in any real way. What you’re left with, sadly, is style over substance. And it’s a style that’s feeling a little less fresh everyday.
With one film under his belt, it’s too early to tell if Vaughn will ever find a style all his own. For now, though, he leans too heavily on the new British style made the all-the-rage by films he produced – but were envisioned and created by their director — Ritchie.