Layer Cake

October, 2004, Thriller

Directed by:Matthew Vaughn

Starring:Daniel Craig, Colm Meaney, Kenneth Cranham, George Harris, Jamie Foreman, and Michael Gambon

Some years ago, Bill James, an English journalist, began writing crime novels that were partly police procedurals and partly a British take on Damon Runyan; crooks that are bad, but also funny because of their pretentiousness. A half-dozen years ago, Guy Ritchie, James' countryman, brought this notion to the screen in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels which allowed Ritchie to make a ton of money and acquire a very expensive wife--Madonna. Having thus failed to pay sufficiently for his sins, Ritchie went on to make Snatch, a retread of Lock, Stock which in turn spawned a number of even shabbier knockoffs. It took a good bit of nerve then for Ritchie's producer on those two movies, Mathew Vaughn, to make his directorial debut with this film, which is a rather upscale version of the same plot. (Perhaps Vaughn thought his wife, model Claudia Shiffer, required him to aim higher than Ritchie did when directing Madonna in the god-awful remake of Swept Away.)

Working from a script by J.J. Connolly, (who adapted his novel of the same name) Vaughan traces the career challenges of a nameless cocaine dealer, (Daniel Craig) whose weary voice-over provides the information that, having made his criminal fortune, he's plans to retire in order to distance himself from the Neanderthals with whom he's forced to do business. Unfortunately a group of them, using his contacts, rip-off a major Dutch supplier of product, who naturally wants our narrator to make good. But competing London drug gangs want the stolen shipment too, and will sell protection to get it--something Craig's imperiled character but can't pay for, as he doesn't have the goods. 

The role of leading man is a big step up for Craig, a journeyman actor, (Sylvia, Road To Perdition) principally in British films for the last decade; his trim good looks, smart wardrobe and understated menace work perfectly as a bad guy with brains, forced to employ some grotesquely funny muscle to keep his business operations from collapsing before he can get out alive. When squeezed between these opposing forces, Craig's sophisticated veneer slips quite credibly into the kind of panicked resort to brute force the storyline requires, proving our anti-hero to be just a squalid underneath as those he battling.

Vaughn's production is glossy enough to create the kind of atmosphere he's shooting for, with lots of aerial shots of the new construction along Canary Wharf suggesting that while England's new crime lords may be better dressed and coiffed than their predecessors, they're just as heartlessly ruthless. Michael Gambon, sporting a mane of hair as black as his Bentley, does a nice turn as a crime boss with social pretensions, and the rest of the cast sports their idiosyncratic thuggish-ness with often startling viciousness, but in the end, there's nothing but style going on in this cops 'n robbers caper with its thin veneer of sophistication. With a nihilistically improbable ending reminiscent of Dalton Trumbo's Lonely Are The Brave, Vaughn demonstrates that he knows how to put the body of a good film together without yet demonstrating he can also provide its soul.

The Verdict? Slick, stylish violence with lots of form but little content.        

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