Layer Cake: A Filling Slice of Gangster Hell, Light on the Icing
Unless the movies have lied to me, every career criminal says it at least once: ‘“I’m not a gangster. I’m a businessman.’” So begins Layer Cake, with the same admonition every gangster narrative makes: ‘“It’s just that the goods I sell happen to be illegal.’” In this era of The Sopranos, it’s practically expected for a serious mob story to have a storm of ethical conflict at its core. This, in part, is what makes British director Guy Ritchie (Snatch; Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) so entertaining ‘— his films boast a complete absence of any moral pontification, and his characters have no illusions about who they are. Since we’re at a point in history when every tough guy seems to be finding himself on a psychiatrist’s couch, Ritchie’s films act as wicked little romps into the absolutely, proudly evil.
Out of this Lock Stock phenomenon comes the modestly promoted directorial debut of Matthew Vaughn, who cut his teeth as the producer of Ritchie’s films. In Layer Cake, he displays his mentor’s love of a complicated plot, but he also does him one better: Vaughn largely casts off the cheeky, sociopathic glee that characterizes Ritchie’s films and instead opts for a more earnest tone. The product is one of the best cinematic gangster stories since The Usual Suspects.
Layer Cake’s nameless main character (Daniel Craig) is serious about his stature in the ‘business’ community: he adheres to strict rules of conduct, he keeps a low profile, and he’s intent on retiring after ‘— wait for it ‘— one last score. The less you know about the plot, the better off you’ll be. As you probably suspect, things on this last score don’t go according to plan ‘— drugs go missing, hit men are mobilized, and loyalties are betrayed. It’s textbook stuff, but this creative team makes it sing. Writing something both familiar and fresh is no small task, and first-time screenwriter J.J. Connolly (adapting from his novel) does it brilliantly. True to its title, this is a film that reveals itself slowly, but it’s interesting from beginning to end.
There are only a few flaws to be found, and they’re small ones. Once again, there’s a completely pointless love story crowbarred in that gets so little screen time (around five minutes) it’s puzzling by its mere presence. And while the plot is truly the film’s strong point, it comes dangerously close to an overabundance of it. You might have a bit of trouble working out what’s going on, especially when key events turn on what I’m sure is very authentic, but sometimes confusing slang for we Yanks who have spent no significant time in England.
One has to commend Vaughn’s ambition. Personally, I always thought that Guy Ritchie’s films were great, but upon repeat viewings they seem to rely heavily on shock value; they try quite hard to make up in style what they lack in soul. Vaughn obviously saw something else under the gloss, and we’re better off for it. Though stylistically similar to Snatch and Lock Stock, this film represents a more evolved breed of British crime drama. Layer Cake is among the best directorial debuts in recent memory, and heralds what should be the long career of a promising new talent.
LET HIM HEAR IT! – A load of bollocks? Tell Glen Baity about it via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.