Director: Matthew Vaughn
Cast: Daniel Craig, Colm Meaney, George Harris, Kenneth Cranham, Jamie Foreman, Sienna Miller, Dexter Fletcher, Tamer Hassan, Tom Hardy, Ben Whishaw, Burn Gorman, Sally Hawkins, and Michael Gambon
Plot: A cocaine dealer (Craig) acts as a middle man when it comes to shifting a large quantity of pills, but it soon spirals out of control.
Layer Cake sticks in the memory as another British gangster film. In the vein of any Guy Ritchie product, we are given a large cast playing fast-talking gangsters all with thick English accents from the Cockney geezer to the Scouse dealers. However, whenever you actually get around to watching Layer Cake, you suddenly remember Vaughn’s secret weapon: intelligence. While Ritchie throws several interesting characters and slapstick humour at his movies to see what sticks, Vaughn’s take on the gangster movie is a carefully calculated gambit. It is sharp, stylish and with a killer soundtrack to boot (Sienna Miller dancing to The Source is mesmerising). This is not just another gangster movie. It’s a Matthew Vaughn movie.
Vaughn takes a few lessons from Ritchie, before adding his own style to the mix. For example, the opening is very Ritchie-esque, quickly setting up the main characters and getting the necessary exposition out of the way in a very clear-cut manner. Daniel Craig literally tells you who is who for the opening five minutes. However, this sequence is tinged with little slices of Vaughn’s inventiveness. He gives Daniel Craig some meaty dialogue for the narration, never letting the audience get bored, because a harsh swear word is always moments from being dropped. The story races at break neck speed and it could be argued that it does require a second watch to truly understand every detail of this film. However, it never becomes too much, helped mainly by Daniel Craig’s charismatic lead. He is a great hero to spend time with in this universe. He lives by a very strict set of rules which helps him become more than the Ritchie anti-hero. He’s not prone to greed or ambition. He starts the movie telling us that once he has earned enough to live comfortably, he will retire and leave the game behind. He refuses to become a slave to the drug trade. As a result, he always seems a cut above the rest of the characters, a comfortable blend of struggling underdog and intelligent mastermind. You want him to get away with it by the end. It is a strong performance, the first proper lead role to truly give Craig the spotlight he deserves. Sure, Layer Cake is little more than a piece of fun at times, but it is in the smaller moments where the performance hits home, certain facial expressions or mannerisms that sets Daniel Craig apart from the competition.
Sadly, Layer Cake’s main problem is that it ends up biting off more than it can chew. While the plot is good, there is so much of it, so Vaughn’s charming direction gets lost in the story. Craig ends up having to deal with a shipment of pills stolen from a dangerous Serbian gang, find the stoner daughter of a dangerous crime-lord and still land a profit if he wants to keep his body out of a grave. Daniel Craig ends up the only character who is properly developed. A love story between him and Sienna Miller is tragically cut short, because there is no time to develop it. As a result, Miller is nothing more than a pretty face (and body, if I am being perfectly honest), and under-used. While the film boasts an incredible British cast (Hardy, Fletcher, Gorman), don’t get your hopes up. No one gets a chance to show off their acting muscles. It is the kind of film where these British actors pop up, do the same old thing and just add another movie to their IMBD page. Hardy says very little. Dexter Fletcher has done this before. Cranham does his best gangster impression. None of the performances here are bad, in fact they are rather good, but no one pushes themselves as much as you would like. The only actor, besides Craig worth mentioning is Gambon, who goes against type as a nasty, leather-faced kingpin, who chews scenery and provides a much-needed ‘boo-hiss’ villain. Again, this isn’t a bad story, especially with the help of an impressive ‘ta-da’ moment in the end, but you can’t help but wonder if one subplot or character was trimmed, would the style and acting have a better chance of shining through?
Final Verdict: Layer Cake is a stylish gangster movie, smarter than the average entry to the genre, even if there is a bit too much plot to wade through.