Layer Cake (2004) * Burke Favorite *
Dir: Matthew Vaughn
Stars: Daniel Craig, Colm Meany, Michael Gambon, Jamie Foreman, Sienna Miller and Tom Hardy
This is just my kind of movie: I understand this British caper movie with drug themes may not be for everyone, but I really dig its style, its cast, its intricate storyline and the name of its main character, “XXXX”. I’m sure I’ve already lost many of you between the terms “British” (as in, “What the hell did they just say??”), “intricate storyline” and the admission that there’s a main character with no name: and I really mean no condescension in that statement, it’s just that we all have our guilty pleasures. Layer Cake is undoubtedly one of mine. Anyhow, if you’re still with me, I think the film’s style in and of itself makes it worth a watch, even if this isn’t your genre.
Let me get into the meat of the sandwich here: what’s Layer Cake about? It’s about a guy with no name played by Daniel Craig, who’s trying to retire – yes, he’s trying to get out of selling cocaine for a living, but working towards a comfortable retirement is indeed a relatable thought. Right of the bat, the film makers have taken a common theme and applied sex and violence to it: when is that ever a bad recipe for a film? The story starts as most British caper films of late begin, with a nice, music-driven montage of how this man’s business works. Craig’s character separates himself from the Tony Montanas and George Jungs (I’m thinking of Johnny Depp in Blow) as drug dealers we’ve seen in other movies. This guy keeps a low profile, takes his business seriously, and always pays his clients promptly, fully aware of the dangerous business he’s chosen.
I particularly like the portion of the opening montage in which special effects are used to illustrate how what XXXX sells is really no different from what we buy in the cosemetic store (from one point of view). The shot I’m referring to has Craig sauntering through a perfume store, with French Connection UK brand “cocaine” and “heroine” in nicely packaged boxes. As he keeps walking through the store, the boxes re-image themselves into their usual appearances, bringing a nice visual to the fact that hard narcotics are nowhere near legal yet…
Regardless, the opening five minutes do a very efficient and entertaining job of introducing us to the main character, establishing that this film is more concerned with style than probably any other aspect, and setting up the problem. XXXX always pays his customers “on time, in full, you give no short counts and you get no second chances…” (that line sounds better with Craig’s accent, of course). Regardless, his biggest customer, Jimmy Price, “wants to have a word”. Now, immediately Craig’s entire crew is nervous: Jimmy never wants to meet, so… there must be a problem.
Turns out Jimmy wants XXXX to a do a little snoop job for him and find the daughter of Jimmy’s associate, a guy named Eddie Temple. Without revealing too much, the job forces XXXX to make some serious decisions about the guys he’s been doing business with, a gorgeours girl he comes in contact with (Sienna Miller) and this Temple character. Speaking of characters, the film is chock full of very amusing personas, who do absolutely all they can between their lines, their costumes and their nuances to maximize their screen time: let me offer some examples –
- Sally Hawkins as Slasher: you might recognize her from other English cinema, but this role has her decked out in ultra-high heels and leather jackets as she accompanies her boyfriend around Amsterdam and London’s seedy streets high out of her mind.
- Jamie Foreman as Duke: I’ve seen this actor in numerous English films (Gangster No. 1 or Football Factory, anyone?), and he always impresses as a guy in over his head… just found out from his IMDB bio that he’s actually the son of an infamous London gangster, which no doubt has helped his performances as mental-patient worthy characters.
- Colm Meaney as Gene: talk about the definition of “muscle” in a gangster crew, this guy only speaks and moves when he has to – but please, do everything you can NOT to have him move towards you… I first saw Meaney in The Commitments.
- Michael Gambon as Eddie Temple: dressed in gorgeous, tailored suits and with a wildly un-trimmed gray haircut, this guy is pretty scary as the billionnaire you don’t want to “f” with. When his side of the story comes out concerning one of XXXX’s associates, it’s one of the best reveals in the movie.
- Dexter Fletcher as Cody: starring as a comfortable cop who’s more a negotiator than totally corrupt, Fletcher has the perfect pitch as a law enforcer who takes his chance when he gets it. Why leave a yellow Range Rover behind when its drug dealing owner has recently “met with an accident”?
I have to say, there are several others I’m not even touching on, but you get the idea of how loaded this film is with characters: let me finish by putting it this way – if you liked Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, you really ought to put this one on the list as a more sophisticated, less comedic British caper film.
Final Thought: would you agree that it’s possible that Daniel Craig got his hat thrown into the James Bond ring of considerations for lead role as a result of some of the scenes from this film?