Guy Ritchie and Matthew Vaughn were the director/producer team behind cult British gangland movies Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. After Guy Ritchie departed to make navel-gazing nonsense with his British-by-way-of-Brooklyn wife, Vaughn has decided he wants to step up to the directors’ plate. News earlier this week reported that Vaughn has won the coveted role of directing the third instalment of the X-Men franchise, despite only having one low budget British feature to his name. Surely such a jump of responsibility must mean that Layer Cake is some kind of milestone in UK cinema. In truth it seems more like a studio has found an overeager debutant director who wants a quick jump to Hollywood, and whom they can easily use to steer the project through studio manipulation because the fact is, Layer Cake just isn’t as good as the hype would suggest.
Our movie opens with an “Obligatory Gangster-movie Narrative Introduction™” from our nameless protagonist, bringing us up to speed on the rules and workings of being a successful small time drug dealer for the mob and the key factors in remaining successful. “Have a plan and stick to it” he tells us, and so as with all good small time crooks his plan is to score one more job before “retiring” from the business for good. And as with all of these kinds of plans, things go horribly wrong. It all seems simple enough, there are two tasks – finding the missing daughter of his drug supplier’s boss and completing a big drug deal with an annoying and unprofessional dealer known only as “The Duke”. Pretty soon our man is dragged into a game of deceit and double-cross involving gangland bosses, Serbian drug kingpins, a French-learning hitman, and uses of clothes irons that are definitely not suggested in the instruction manual.
I’ll be honest, the whole British gangster movie thing is starting to bore me. Like the foppish British rom-com of the mid 90s it’s becoming an over-used premise for the industry. Though I can’t really criticize when Hollywood churns out remake after remake, in a national industry so small and in dire need of revitalization there are far too few Danny Boyles and far too many Guy Ritchies at the moment. British filmmakers can’t afford to keep falling back on clichés to be successful, their group’s not big enough to afford the luxury of recycled goods; they need more original ideas, and this is where Layer Cake suffers most.
The biggest problem the movie suffers from is “seen it all before syndrome”. Nothing about its execution, its direction or climax will really surprise you, let alone the seemingly tacked-on ending which will either feel amazingly smart or incredibly cheap. I lean towards the latter. It’s all so workman-like and by-the-numbers that not even some nice cinematography by Ben V. Davis can save it. Layer Cake fails to bring anything new to the gangster movie genre, the only thing setting it apart is a refreshing lack of the caricaturing and childish humour that plagued Guy Ritchie’s work.
It’s clear Vaughn has many influences, most noticeably cult director Brian DePalma. In fact so influenced by DePalma is our British helmsman that you’ll notice certain scenes being more than a little reminiscent of one of his works in particular. The movie is also hampered by having far too many similar characters crammed into too tight a story. Writer J.J. Connelly adapted his own novel for the screen and like most novelists-turned-screenwriters he’s far too attached to his source material to effectively prune it down to service the needs of a screen version.
The acting from the main characters is one of Layer Cake’s redeeming features. Daniel Craig, who plays our main character, has enough rough charm to carry the main role and keep you interested. It’s easy to see why some might have suggested him as a possible Bond, but I need more convincing. Dumbledore himself, Michael Gambon, phones in a role as an overly-tanned gangland baron and still manages to outshine most of the cast. Colm Meaney proves he’s been sorely underused since his Star Trek days in his portrayal of a gruff gang member with an explosive temper. Give this man more work, now. On the downside, Sienna Miller is totally wasted in the role of Gambon’s wayward daughter who decides to take a liking to our main character. The problem is that this relationship is never explored or examined and is executed so hamfistedly that seems to exist solely to prove to the audience that the main character is without a doubt a confident heterosexual. One of only two female characters in the movie, she appears in only three short scenes. Once dancing sexily in slow motion, again cavorting in skimpy undies, and then in the final scene on the arm of our protagonist. Good gangster movies usually provide female characters to present some kind of alternate view of the gangland lifestyle or to show the main character’s attitudes towards the fairer sex and how their choice of profession affects that. Here it serves little more purpose than barely PG-13 rated titillation.
Overall Layer Cake isn’t necessarily a bad movie, it just isn’t anything special, another forgettable low budget mob thriller. Good performances and a nice visual style are hampered by an overly complicated script and a lack of originality. Maybe Vaughn has something to offer that I’m missing, but I really can’t fathom the excitement this movie is generating. There are far better British gangster movies out there that manage to balance style and substance; don’t pass them up in favor of this simply because they’re not made recently or directed by this year’s particular “Brit of the moment” in Hollywood.