Sometimes, as beautifully as a film is put together, you can't escape the feeling that you've seen it all before, but in different incarnations. For me, "Layer Cake" is one of those films. It has the same hip, superslick style as "Pulp Fiction"—but with a silencer on, when it comes to the violence. And when the nameless hero (a mid-level London gangster who's called "XXXX" in the end credits) does the voiceover, you can't help but recall "Goodfellas" with it's similar narrative of a "connected" guy whose sweet life suddenly starts to go sour.
In case you're thinking about getting into the business, early in the film the narrator shares his rules for survival: Always work in a small team, keep a very low profile, only deal with people you know, never be too greedy, know and respect your enemies, avoid loud attention-seeking wannabe gangsters, stay away from the anti-user, pay your supplier promptly, have a good front, and have a plan and stick to it. "So," he concludes, "barring any f---ups, I'm leaving it all behind." Getting out while he can.
But anyone who's ever watched a gangster movie—no matter what the location or nationality—knows that retirement isn't exactly as easy as filing those SRA papers. And those rules by which XXXX lived fly immediately out the window when his boss, Jimmy (Kenneth Graham), gives him a killer of an assignment. It seems that one of their "associates," Duke (Jamie Foreman) acted on his own to heist a million-hit cache of Ecstasy from the Serbian mob, and XXXX (Daniel Craig) has to try to "handle" it—though what Jimmy means by that is never really clear. One presumes its to get rid of Duke and somehow sell that Ecstasy without getting whacked by the Serbs. Oh, and while he's at it, could he also try to locate the missing daughter of kingpin Eddie Temple (Michael Gambon)?
The buzz is that Craig has a good shot at becoming the next 007, and you can certainly imagine him in that role—though he's got a harder edge than any of the others who played Bond before him. There's something not just cool, but cold about him as he glides from scene to scene. Only when he's grabbed by thugs and dangled over a building's edge do we see that his reaction is as realistically normal as the next guy . . . who's dangled perilously over a building's edge, whereas Mr. Bond would merely register a bit of a squirm on his countenance.
Filmed in Amsterdam and in the studios in England, "Layer Cake" follows XXXX and his cohort, the bald, black baddie Morty (George Harris) as they try to sort things out, encountering mid-level gangsters like Gene (Colm Meaney) and trigger-happy beginners like Slasher (Sally Hawkins) in the process. Through most of it, those steely-blue eyes of XXXX's narrow to penetrate the souls of others, and to seal off any entrance to his own soul. He's got the Bond poker face down to a pat hand. Craig and Gambon are the frosting on this cake, while everyone else's performances are layered beneath them.
Director Matthew Vaughn gives us a film that celebrates London as a city as much as it glorifies the drug trade there. But for all it's metaphorical obviousness (I mean, as if we couldn't figure it out, Temple even says, "Welcome to the Layer Cake," and explains the whole layers of gangster society thing), "Layer Cake" doesn't have the complexity of "Traffic" or the same sort of camera innovations to create a parallel visual complexity. It's a stylish and polished film, but a fairly straightforward one. Most of the visual interest comes from interesting camera angles from scene to scene—and even then, there's nothing so jarring or striking that it draws notice (except for some sped-up filming and one scene in a café). And the most exciting action sequence involves a bit of stunt driving in reverse. For all its attempted energy, the film seems strangely tired, perhaps because our eyes pass over very little in the way of unfamiliar ground, and there's not nearly enough "Pulp Fiction" style surprises to thrust a needle into our hearts to get them pumping furiously again. That said, and despite a predictable and disappointing ending, it's still engaging enough for an evening's entertainment.
Video: The picture quality is quite stunning, mastered in High Definition and presented in 2.40:1 widescreen.
Audio: As with the video, the audio is quite good, with an English Dolby Digital 5.1 track and a French Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround track. Subtitles are in French, Chinese, Korean, Thai, and English, and thank goodness for that. There'll be a few times when you'll want to switch on the subtitles just to catch the slang-ridden dialogue: things like "gobshite," "toerag," "did his bird," and "let's have a little recce." Other times you'll want the subtitles on because the voices can dip into a level of quietness where it's tough to understand the characters, unless you've got an ear for Britspeak.
Extras: The commentary by Vaughn and writer Connolly is better than most, useful because it will help you to get a handle on some of the aspects of this film that get lost in translation to a quicker-paced visual medium. There's also a featurette Q/A with Vaughn and Craig onstage at the National Film Theatre in London, September 2004, a low-key affair with audience and interviewer. But the pacing is sub-leisurely, and the lighting is bizarre, with lines of color slashing across the principles' faces. During the interview, as on the commentary, Vaughn talks about his attitude towards Quentin Tarantino—he loves the director, but is no fan of gratuitous violence, which is why he chose to rein it in. Craig, meanwhile, talks about the pitfalls of the genre of British gangster films: "When there's one success, people start flogging a dead horse."
An unexpected bonus are two storyboard/film comparisons, one where XXXX shoots Jimmy and another with Mr. Lucky vs. Dragon. Using the angle button, you can switch back and forth to give the bigger image to either the film or storyboard sketch. Rounding out the extras are publicity galleries with posters.
Bottom Line: Obviously descended from the creative vision of Tarantino, "Layer Cake" partly pays tribute to that supercool slickness, glorifying the gangster life while nonetheless downplaying violence. Partly, it's London itself that director Vaughn paints with buckets of style. The locations are gorgeous, and there are plenty of wide-angle shots to give the city its due. Connolly and Vaughn imply that the gangster hierarchy is but a single social subculture of a heavily "layered" city. But in the end, it struck me that the film could have been more original, and more energetic.