Layer Cake

If Layer Cake looks and feels familiar, it is because it is. Prior to this, director Matthew Vaughn produced Guy Ritchie films Snatch and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (Swept Away doesn't count). Layer Cake has the same visual panache, thumping soundtrack, and themes of gangsters run amok and lots of violence. In this case, there is a little more substance behind it, since JJ Connolly adapted the film from its own book. Vaughn rushes through the plot, cramming in details at a maddening speed. It's so fast that some of the smaller details are easy to miss, and there are so many people and double-crosses that confusion may abound if one doesn't pay attention.

Layer Cake centers on the travails of a low-level unnamed gangster (Daniel Craig, The Jacket, Enduring Love). XXXX, as the credits call him, believes in keeping a low profile, paying off his suppliers on time, not getting greedy, and retiring early. He considers himself a businessman, not a gangster, and abhors the use of guns. He has some money stashed away for just his purpose, but getting out of a racket like this is never easy. His supplier, Jimmy (Kenneth Cranham, Blackball, Gangster No. 1) charges him with finding the daughter of another supplier just as he was ready to leave the business. He also has to find a buy for a large shipment of pills obtained by the unstable Duke (Jamie Foreman, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, Gangster No. 1). So while being reliable has its perks, it also has its downside.

In the grand tradition of gangster films like these, the title character finds himself embroiled in matters far over his head. Anything that can go wrong does, and he finds himself dealing with homicidal Serbians, a rival drug lord (played with aplomb by Michael Gambon, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow). The only people he can trust is Jimmy's enforcer Gene (Colm Meaney, Intermission, Mystery, Alaska) and his own assistant Morty (George Harris, Black Hawk Down, The Emperor's New Clothes). Again, nothing happens according to schedule, leading the protagonist further away from his hopes of retirement. It's best to just sit back and let everything fly across the screen only because if one tries to piece everything together slowly, something else will have happened in the meantime.

And while everything comes together in the end, it all feels a bit arbitrary and manufactured; there isn't that slick feeling one gets with genre films that really work. Craig and the rest of the cast do a good job. Craig in particular, with his searing blue eyes and rigid features easily convey the lethal calmness necessary for his job. Even as his world falls apart around him, he still tries to work things such that they come out in his favor. Meaney (as always) and Harris are great foils, and Gambon lends a certain air of credibility and gravitas to the film. Layer Cake apparently impressed the producers of the X-Men franchise enough to give Vaughn the director's chair for X-Men 3, but overall it feels like it is trying to be cooler than it really is.

Mongoose Rates It: Okay.
1 hour, 44 minutes, Rated R for strong brutal violence, sexuality, nudity, pervasive language, and drug use.

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