2005Director: Matthew Vaughn
Cast: Daniel Craig, Colm Meaney, George Harris, Michael Gambon
t seems that all contemporary gangster films require that weighty first person narration in which the hero (or anti-hero) matter-of-factly illustrates the complex inner workings of his/her business. Itís the same sort of formula that appears to have become the standard since Goodfellas.
Layer Cake begins no differently, with the main character (known only as XXXX in the closing credits) giving a rather dry and detailed description of his cocaine business while the film complements his words with images of each procedure. Itís certainly an economical way of beginning a film and getting all the messy business of establishing characters out of the way, especially when you have as many as this film has. Like those in the business itself, the last thing one wants to do is get to know each person on an intimate basis.
From a certain perspective I mean that as a sort of criticism, since Layer Cake never rises above the conventions of its genre in the same way that a film like Le Cercle Rouge did all those years back; though by now even that film has spawned its own set of conventions that are emulated to this day. At this point itís a tough genre to really revolutionize without simply transcending it completely, and to its immense credit at least Layer Cake goes about its business in a sufficiently entertaining way. For that I can be grateful, since it could have been far worse considering it was directed by Matthew Vaughn, the producer of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. But Vaughn proves to posses far more scruples than Guy Ritchie and as a result directs the material with grace and confidence rather than resorting to the highly stylized and cartoonish atmosphere of Ritchie.
Not pictured: Judas Iscariot.
But here now, Iíve probably made the film sound less than appealing, and I donít want to discourage fans of the genre from seeing this. I think itís best to establish the target audience with a film such as this. For those uninterested in crime films, Layer Cake will do little to sway them. But for those who know what to expect, I believe the film delivers on all the necessary levels: numerous plot twists, an ensemble cast of straight-faced criminals, drugs, guns, betrayals and women.
It opens with another successful deal by the filmís nameless hero. Upon collecting his profit heís asked to meet with his employer for a friendly lunch, which of course in the criminal world always signals a not-so-friendly proposal. His employer asks him to handle another deal which comes as a hitch in XXXXís plans for an early retirement. In addition he asks our hero to track down the missing daughter of a friend. Such a request is shrouded in suspicion since tracking down missing persons isnít his business. Of course he canít refuse either offer, since refusal comes with its own set of consequences.
Does, um, she by any chance come with the car?
Yet as more information is received, the more undesirable and dangerous the whole deal becomes. The carriers XXXX is asked to deal with turn out to be a bunch of amateurs led by a boorish loudmouth named Duke who have come across a million pills of ecstasy. They want to unload the merchandise for far more than itís worth. What XXXX and his colleagues donít know is that the supply was stolen from a rather nasty gang of Serbians who have sent a psychotic and merciless assassin named Dragan to bring back the stolen goods along with Dukeís head. Being the type of character that he is, Duke has trouble keeping his activity discreet, which makes it easy for Dragan to track down all his contacts. This inevitably leads him to XXXX. Meanwhile, tracking down the whereabouts of the missing girl only leads to more bodies and a whole other set of dilemmas.
The film takes this rather complicated setup and simply expands upon it, adding layer after layer (if you will) of hitmen, double crossings, dirty dealings, etc., until the film becomes a bit convoluted in its own untidy situation. In addition, for us Americans, the British accents donít help illuminate matters. Long bits of conversation require a keen ear to sort out exactly whatís being discussed. At times I wished the film were subtitled.
Still, amid all this chaos, the film manages to hold itself together and somehow ties up all the loose ends quite well. After all, itís hard to altogether lose track of a story carved from such a recognizable format. And though it never exceeds expectations itís good to see a film that remains true to its core throughout and never makes any concessions along the way. It plows right into its narration and doesnít relent until the final frame fades to white. Itís the kind of experience that leaves the viewer breathless. To that extent, if the final shot makes the audience feel somewhat cheated, I suppose that canít be helped. At least it was a lot of fun getting there.