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A middle-ranking cocaine dealer has his plans to take early retirement scuppered. Debut feature from Guy Ritchie's regular producer Matthew Vaughn, starring Daniel Craig.
Daniel Craig delivers a brilliant, charismatic performance as a London drug kingpin who’s planning an early retirement in Matthew Vaughn’s directorial debut. Craig is so good, in-fact, that it led to him being cast as James Bond the following year, and he’s surrounded by an array of future stars including Tom Hardy, Ben Whishaw, Burn Gorman and Sally Hawkins. But the missing daughter of a supplier, stolen ecstasy tablets, a police informant, a murder and embezzled funds all complicate his retirement plans, and Craig’s antihero needs to outsmart everyone around him in order to make it out of the underworld in one piece.
Regular Guy Ritchie producer Matthew Vaughn steps out of Ritchie's shadow with this directorial debut, faithfully adapted by JJ Connolly from his own novel. Layer Cake is a more restrained affair than Ritchie's hyper-stylised debut Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and his follow-up Snatch (2000), but still can't resist showing off with a belly-full of camera tricks, sketching a gallery of one-dimensional gangland thugs or choreographing designer violence to a well-timed pop song.
Vaughn's smartest move is casting Daniel Craig as the nameless narrator (let's call him Mr X), a small-time but smart coke dealer. Craig conveys his character's streetwise savvy with aplomb, using enough rough charm to ensure we're with him rather than against him. With the material on offer, Craig does a solid job - though compared to some of his previous performances, notably in Sylvia and The Mother, this is an undemanding role.
The trouble with Layer Cake is that it gets bogged down in a dense narrative. Dispensing with the archetypal rise-and-fall structure that drives most gangster films, it begins with a lengthy voiceover sequence in which Mr X introduces us to his world. Already as high as he wants to go, Mr X wants to quit the business and get out before he gets caught. Easier said than done.
Above him in the gangland hierarchy, kingpin Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham) enlists his help to find the missing daughter of an associate of his named Eddie Temple (Michael Gambon). Meanwhile, Mr X's sidekick Gene (Colm Meaney) has set up a deal involving a shipment of ecstasy - stolen by the unhinged JD (Jamie Foreman) from a gang of ruthless Serbians who have despatched an assassin to retrieve their goods. To complicate matters, there are further sub-plots - Mr X flirting with Tammy (Sienna Miller), flighty girlfriend to Sidney (Ben Whishaw), one of JD's gang members; Mr X's associate Morty (George Harris) brutally attacking a tramp who he knew once upon a time.
It's not that the story won't hold your attention. It's just, as with Ritchie's films, you'll have trouble remembering it within minutes of the credits rolling. At least it's less cocky and cartoon-like than its stable-mates, and as pure Friday night entertainment, Layer Cake delivers.
In a nutshell: Stylishly shot if superficial gangster story with an ace up its sleeve in Daniel Craig's lead performance, two years before he slipped into James Bond's tux with 2006's Casino Royale.
By James Mottram
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