Matthew Vaughn was the producer for Guy Ritchie’s popular but—some would say—disjointed British gangster films Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000). It’s clear from this twisted saga of London’s drug underworld that he was paying attention.
Layer Cake, Vaughn’s first crack at directing, moves with much the same rhythm as the Ritchie movies. It also employs the same kind of convoluted plot that viewers either loved or hated in those films. Vaughn also captures Ritchie’s trademark blend of style and substance thanks in large part to the performance of Daniel Craig.
Craig, in a pre-James Bond role, plays a businessman/drug dealer who has made his money and now plans to get out. But his mentor and boss, Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham), wants one last favor. The result is chaos. Fast-paced and at times terribly brutal, Layer Cake doesn’t try to moralize and offers few heroes.
“I’m not a gangster, just a businessman,” Craig says in one of several voice-overs as the movie opens. “And my commodity happens to be cocaine.”
Vaughn and screenwriter J. J. Connolly (author of the novel on which the movie is based) make a not-too-subtle argument for the legalization of drugs early in the movie with a futuristic shot of Craig walking the aisles of a pharmacy stocked with “FCUK” labeled boxes and bottles of over-the-counter cocaine, heroin, meth, and assorted other illegal drugs. (FCUK stands for “French Connection United Kingdom,” a high-end clothing line whose founder, Stephen Marks, was the executive producer of the movie. Talk about product placement.)
The film’s point is that branding and legalization may be the only way to get a handle on the billion-dollar drug market and put an end to the cycle of violence that stretches from manufacturer to mass supplier to middle man to street user. Layer Cake focuses on that cycle with Craig, the West End businessman whose name we never learn (he’s referred to only as XXXX in the credits) naively believing that he can stay above the fray.
As his voice sets the story in motion, we see him moving through the streets of London, suave, sophisticated, and totally at ease. He has a real estate company as a legitimate front, a money-laundering Pakistani accountant, and a team of associates insulating him from the seedier side of the drug underworld.
Or so he believes.
The movie’s title refers to the various strata of the chaotically violent, multibillion-dollar world of cocaine trafficking. Craig may think he’s made it to the top layer of that world, but he is about to learn that he is a lot closer to the bottom. Caught in the switches of a series of double-crosses and never quite sure whom he can trust, Craig eventually becomes the gangster that he claims not to be.
Reviews were mixed when Layer Cake was released in 2004, but following Craig’s success as the latest incarnation of 007, the movie gained a cult following.
One reviewer called it a “masterly, intricately plotted crime story” while another wrote that it was “lamentably short of narrative coherence.” Several reviewers noted Craig’s striking resemblance to the late, great Steve McQueen.
Like McQueen, Craig speaks with his eyes and his body as well as his words. And the message he sends, on a visceral level, is “watch me.” The film works in large part because when Craig’s on-screen, he dominates it.
Cranham and Michael Gambon are perfect as drug kingpins Price and Eddie Temple, two players clearly higher on the layer cake than our man. Both manipulate him into doing their bidding in a battle of wits that revolves around Temple’s drug-addicted daughter and a stolen shipment of one million ecstasy pills that Price wants Craig’s character to put on the market.
The drugs were stolen from Serbian war criminals operating in Amsterdam. A group of scatter-shot drug dealers, led by Duke (Jamie Foreman) pull off the heist but then bungle their way toward getting the product to market.
Murder and mayhem ensue.
The leader of the Serbians says he wants Duke’s head. And he means it literally.
Sienna Miller’s Tammy provides Craig with a love interest, although her original attachment to Duke’s nephew Sidney (Ben Whishaw) adds to Craig’s problems.
Craig’s underworld sidekick, Morty (George Harris), seems to be a reasonable bloke until he runs into an old acquaintance in a restaurant. Morty proceeds to brutally beat his old friend and then pours a pot of hot tea (it’s a London restaurant, what else would you expect) over the hapless victim. We later learn in a flashback that the “friend” had set Morty up for a fall that led to a 10-year prison stint.
Colm Meaney, as always, is masterful as Gene, another player in the drug world.
In fact, almost everyone we meet is in the drug game. And while they occupy different layers of it, their motivation is the same: money.
“Life is so fucking good I can taste it in my spit,” Craig says early on when he still believes he can walk away.
Vaughn, in explaining his approach to the film, said he was aiming for the MTV generation.
“They want it all,” he said in an interview. “They want it now. And they want it quick.”
The same can be said for those doing business in the drug underworld that Layer Cake so accurately portrays.
HIT: Vaughn does a masterful job creating the treacherous, no-one-can-be-trusted drug underworld. And then lets his narrative show how Craig’s character slowly comes to realize the rules of the game. The character study makes this so much more than a Guy Ritchie clone.
MISS: The Serbians who are ripped off and seek to get revenge and/or their ecstasy back are Romanian actors. They speak Romanian, not Serbian. Of course, those of us who depended on the subtitles for translation didn’t have a clue.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: J. J. Connolly’s novel Layer Cake was 344 pages long. His first draft for the movie script ran 408 pages. Needless to say, a lot of it was cut.
BEST LINE: “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, fucking billions. Recreational drugs . . . giving people what they want: good times today, stupor tomorrow.”—Daniel Craig’s XXXX in a voice-over as the film opens.
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: In one of the final scenes, when XXXX and his new team gather for a meeting in the country club that he now belongs to, the gangsters are sitting around a table eating . . . layer cake.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “A stylish and classic gangster saga about the clashing of rival empires, where the only thing worse than the killer before you is the killer waiting behind him. There’s no escape in this world, only moments of personal courage, grace, and luck.”—Desson Thomson, Washington Post
CASTING CALL: Jamie Foreman, the actor who plays Duke, is the son of a London gangster and associate of the notorious Kray twins—the mobster brothers who terrorized London in the 1960s.
BODY COUNT: Twelve.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”