Movie Review: Layer Cake
By Allison Benedikt, Chicago Tribune Staff Writer
"Layer Cake" opens with its narrator - played by the chiseled and charming Daniel Craig - strolling through the pharmacy of his dreams, its merchandise a sea of uniform white bottles marked in big, black, block letters: ECSTASY, LSD, PCP.
Craig's character is hardly a user. He's a London businessman - a smart, street-savvy dealmaker, light on his feet and dressed for The City - whose trade just happens to be cocaine. One day, he says in a matter-of-fact voice-over, these drugs will be legal and his lucrative business above board, but for now, it's all closed blinds and low-lit rooms, keeping the right people happy and flying way, way under the radar.
Which is why he's getting out, taking his riches and going off to live a quiet life of leisure, away from the thugs and goons who every day call unwanted attention to his otherwise even-keel profession. Yes, he'll leave it all behind - after this One. Last. Job.
Already hep to the one-last-job genre? Don't be a snob. Director Matthew Vaughn has crafted one smooth, slick and sophisticated ride, and you'd be a fool to miss it. Vaughn, a Brit crime-caper vet and Guy Ritchie guy (he produced both "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Snatch"), has sidestepped the flash-over-substance Ritchie aesthetic, smartly opting to take seriously even the lowest character on his criminal food chain-laughing with them, not at them - and fashioning one cool and complicated leading man.
So, back to that one last job, which is actually a two-pronged favor for crime boss Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham). One: track down the missing daughter of Eddie Temple (Michael Gambon), a powerful and connected Price associate. Two: play middleman in the sale of a million ecstasy pills. Easy enough (so I'm told), except that Temple doesn't exactly want his daughter found, and the pills are ill-gotten gain, stolen from the lab of a Serbian drug lord run by a sweaty-palmed crook named The Duke.
This is, of course, the simplified version. The story, adapted by J.J. Connolly from his own book, is unrelenting in its intricacies - and there are stretches where I wasn't sure what was going on. But then it works itself out, or maybe it doesn't - that's simply not the point.
A layer cake, as Vaughn and Connolly envision it, isn't just a multilevel confection. It's a metaphor for the layers of British society (though not exclusively a British phenomenon), where cocaine and corruption aren't relegated to the underworld, and where criminals mingle with the power elite.
Craig's character, for example, runs a real-estate agency as a front for his illicit activity and lives in a home fit for Dwell magazine - all clean lines, square and modern, in the grays and blues of a banker with very sharp taste. He refers to his sidekick and protector, Morty (George Harris), an ex-con, as his "link to the criminal world," a necessary ally in the unending pursuit of an above-board image. (Morty has a momentary lapse of judgment halfway through the film when he delivers a bloody beating to a homeless guy in a diner, but otherwise tries to keep Craig's hands clean.)
Jimmy has his own right-hand man, Gene (the exceptional Irish actor Colm Meaney), whose calm and measured demeanor is the perfect match to Jimmy's hyperactive power trip - insecurity, we learn, as the layers reveal themselves.
And Vaughn reveals with such finesse, connecting dots via cinematic osmosis and narrowing in on the essence of each scene - a minimalism that keeps up the speed and movement, even when the action has subsided.
Craig, cast in Steven Spielberg's Munich Olympics project and rumored to be on the very short list for a very big gig (pssst: 007) is a great anti-hero, tough yet vulnerable, conflicted and amused, sincere and scared, without a hint of any of it on his sleeve. Connolly's script seems tailor-made for him, with a dry, melancholy humor that gives us room to laugh.
But don't let the fast-and-loose vibe fool you: Right up to its operatic finale, this is one tight one last job. Looking forward to Craig's next.
Directed by Matthew Vaughn; written by J.J. Connolly; photographed by Ben Davis; edited by Jon Harris; production designed by Kave Quinn; produced by Matthew Vaughn, Adam Bohling and David Reid. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday, May 20. Running time: 1:40. MPAA rating: R (strong brutal violence, sexuality, nudity, pervasive language and drug use).
Narrator - Daniel Craig
Gene - Colm Meaney
Morty - George Harris
Jimmy Price - Kenneth Cranham
Eddie Temple - Michael Gambon
The Duke - Jamie Foreman