Rated R, 105 min. Directed by Matthew Vaughn. Starring Daniel Craig, Colm Meaney, Kenneth Cranham, George Harris, Jamie Foreman, Sienna Miller, Michael Gambon, Tamer Hassan.
If Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels was the cinematic equivalent of his native England’s Britpop movement, and his Snatch paralleled Tony Blair’s Cool Britannia marketing scheme, then Layer Cake, directed by Ritchie’s longtime producer Vaughn, is an ultracool ricochet backward to the swinging era of Carnaby Street and any number of exquisite King's Cross clothiers. A contemporary gangster film that both looks and feels like a Britnoir classic filtered through the Jam’s bang-on sense of style, Layer Cake forgoes Ritchie’s Byzantine plotting and bad-lads-on-holiday stylistics in favor of a more realistic approach to Britain’s criminal underclass. The layer cake of the title, of course, refers to that selfsame underworld’s class system, which mirrors the whole of U.K. society. Craig plays Layer Cake’s unnamed protagonist, a charmingly smooth drug runner who has decided to opt out of what he quite accurately views as an increasingly hazardous profession. As befits a character who belongs to one of the lower layers of this particular confection, his planned exit runs into opposition from all corners, including top dog Eddie Temple (a perfectly sinister Gambon), middleman pal Gene (Meaney), and violence-prone partner Monty (Harris). Add to this a cache of ecstasy pills stolen by bottom-feeding wannabe gangster Duke (Foreman) from a bloodthirsty Serbian assassin, plus the requisite femme fatale (Miller), and you’ve got all the makings of a ludicrously entertaining debut that echoes Ritchie’s own bullet-riddled and laddish outings without ever actually stooping to their juvie-surreal level. It’s a gangster film for adults, or at least those adults who can detect the difference between Saville Row and Merc. Craig, last seen stateside as Ted Hughes to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Sylvia (Plath), is a revelation here, all smooth edges and tough-guy panache. "I hate guns," he offers at one point, only to fixate moments later on a vintage Luger, the essence of small-arms cool and a triumph of World War I-era German design. Craig’s character’s business dictum – exist beneath the radar, move quickly, never get greedy – is in its own way as flawless as that handgun’s 9mm parabellum cartridge, although like certain firearms in the film, it tends to jam when he least expects it. Adapted from his novel by J.J. Connolly, Layer Cake is suffused with a stately sense of menace and a sort of doomed existential suave. As in Ritchie’s gangster outings, a perfectly chosen selection of pop songs ranging from the Cult’s "She Sells Sanctuary" to the Rolling Stones "Gimme Shelter" play musical counterpoint to the action unfolding onscreen, but Layer Cake, for all the obvious debts it owes to both classic British thrillers and Ritchie’s more recent derivatives, never feels stale. It’s a consistently more mature and grounded work than most recent Britnoir knockoffs (24 Hours in London, for example) that still retains the scruffy street smarts that once made Vaughn the ideal producer for Ritchie’s winning but slapdash forays into cartoonish King’s Cross thuggery.
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