“Layer Cake,” the helming debut for Guy Ritchie’s producer Matthew Vaughn, unfolds in the same Blighty underworld milieu as did Ritchie’s best known movies, “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch,” and shares a similar violence-flecked, soundtrack-driven m.o. But Vaughn’s confidently constructed, sleekly designed tale of a drug dealer contemplating retirement offers more than just a collage of movie refs stitched together with black humor. “Cake” should be a sweet little earner in Blighty, but may struggle to match the numbers of “Snatch” abroad given the lack of name stars.
Played with urbane smoothness by up-and-comer Daniel Craig (“Enduring Love”), pic’s unnamed narrator-hero (called just “XXXX” in end credits) is a professional middle-man between large-volume cocaine and pills importers and various street dealers out of West London.
XXXX has managed to squirrel away a tidy nest egg for his planned departure from the biz in a few days’ time by following a few common-sense rules, such as not getting high on his own supply, laundering his money safely and not making enemies.
But his boss Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham) has two final jobs XXXX must do before he can collect his figurative gold watch. First, Price wants the runaway junkie daughter of kingpin Eddie Temple (Michael Gambon) found and delivered safely to him rather than her father. Second, XXXX must sort out the mess made by the Duke (Jamie Foreman, in fine manic form), who hijacked ecstasy tablets in Amsterdam from Serbian crime lord Dragan (Dragan Micanovic). Price wants XXXX to buy the pills from the Duke, but the soreheaded Serbs want them back.
While the hero begins to suspect he’s been sent on a suicide mission, he discovers a reason to live when he falls in lust with Tammy (Sienna Miller), the slinky g.f. of the Duke’s nephew Sidney (Ben Whishaw), on a nightclub dance floor in a luminously lensed sequence that packs a nice slo-mo erotic wallop.
By degrees, plot turns into a Chandleresque noir as XXXX’s criminal gumshoe works through the complex strands of a backstory that involve not only Price and Temple but also his trusted co-workers Morty (George Harris) and Gene (Colm Meaney) and their complex alliances and grudges. Slightly clumsy flashbacks to the 1970s risk creating aud confusion with unnecessary details, and slow the train down just when it should be picking up speed.
Pic’s title refers to a speech in which one character compares the hierarchical criminal society to a tiered cake.
Strong echoes are felt in both pic’s plot and texture from Brian De Palma’s “Carlito’s Way,” Paul Schrader’s “Light Sleeper” and that ever-present touchstone of British crime thrillers, Mike Hodges’ “Get Carter.” But Vaughn and screenwriter J.J. Connolly (also making his film debut here with this impressively pared-down adaptation of his own novel) bring sufficient freshness to the dialogue and are sparing enough with the references so that pic never feels like a collage of obvious movie allusions, unlike Richie’s work at its worst. There’s a proper lived-in believability about “Layer Cake’s” depiction of how the worlds of the rich, the criminal and the criminally rich intersect.
Fine supporting turns in well-written roles make this a meaty pie. Harris’ mellow Morty, at first an apparent channeling of Danny Glover in a stereotypical black sidekick role, spectacularly upends expectations with a burst of violence. Gambon finds yet another way to project oleaginous bad-guy menace. Underwritten roles give femme thesps less to work with, although Sally Hawkins pumps her part as the Duke’s killer queen Slasher.
In the end, however, it’s very much Daniel Craig’s movie. An actor every bit as capable as current British flavor-of-the-season Jude Law but handsome in a rougher, more broken-nosed way, Craig’s range and dapper appearance here may finally help him break out as a star Stateside.
Tech package is pro, with kudos due in particular to Kave Quinn’s well-observed production design.