Seven years ago, I sat in a movie theatre with little to no expectations for the viewing of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, a British crime/comedy/drama from producer Michael Vaughn. I had never heard of the director (the future Mr. Madonna, Guy Ritchie) and there wasn't a single cast member that I could say I had seen before.
A few years later, Vaughn was back producing another Guy Ritchie film that put American actors Brad Pitt, Benicio Del Toro and Dennis Farnia amongst all the chaos in the British underground in Snatch.
Despite the low fanfare (they have since become cult hits), both movies were refreshingly fun flicks that ended up on my top ten lists in their respective years of release.
Now, five years since Snatch made a splash on North American soil, producer Michael Vaughn is back, this time behind the lens, for the new crime thriller, Layer Cake.
Layer Cake follows a cocaine dealer without a name played by Daniel Craig who is working towards his retirement from the underground biz. He doesn't see himself as a bad man. In fact, his voice over reveals that he is not a gangster. He's a business man. However, if Carlito's Way taught us anything it is that escape from a lifetime in the seedy crime world is not easy to dissolve oneself of.
And things start to go amok immediately when crime boss Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham) forcefully delegates the task of finding the lost daughter of an old powerful friend to our protagonist. Reluctantly, but without option, the job is accepted and this begins the wicked spiral deeper into the drug and criminal underworld than he had ever hoped to venture.
Soon, there will be a drug trade gone bad, an introduction to a character named Dragon who lops off the heads of his victims, friends who will both have a drink with you and kick the living life out of your body in the same afternoon and enough crosses, double crosses and screw-you's to keep you riveted to the screen.
Much like Lock, Stock and Snatch, there are enough characters in Layer Cake to keep your head spinning. Vaughn doesn't try and spell things out for the audience and throws the kitchen sink at our small brains leaving it up the viewer to try and keep pace. Probably requiring a repeat viewing (if for no other reason that to try and understand what is being said under the cover of some very strong English accents), Layer Cake veers from the traditional cookie cutter type drug/crime caper by delivering a complex mix of violence and drama that is anything but packaged with a bow on top.
By the time we are introduced to yet another group of players, headed brilliantly by the always-reliable Michael Gambon, you may need a second to collect your senses and figure out which end is up. It was like watching Memento except with more lively characters and a story that's actually worth your involvement.
I was surprised to learn that this was Michael Vaughn's directorial debut. As a novice he was able to weave a complex web of multiple stories like a seasoned veteran in what I can only suspect to be a more realistic depiction of hit men and drug lords than anything Bad Boys waved in our faces a few years back.
Lacking the dark humor of Lock, Stock and Snatch, Layer Cake is more like Goodfellas and to some extent Reservoir Dogs than its two closest relatives (an ass kicking scene to Duran Duran's Ordinary World was reminiscent of Dogs' Stuck in the Middle With You). It's a film composed with characters that are so unique and interesting, yet violent and criminal that you don't know who to root for. Case in point, Gene played by Star Trek veteran Colm Meany. As Jimmy Price's right hand man, Gene is a gangster that wouldn't hesitate to put a bullet in your brain if so ordered, but portrayed as a human being who is just doing what he is told to survive in a world to which he is too accustomed. He is maybe the most charismatic bad guy since Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction.
Rumor in selected Trades is that Daniel Craig is the frontrunner for the Bond franchise if Pierce Brosnan decides to jump ship, and his performance in Layer Cake proves that he is up to the task. His steely blue eyes and Steve McQueen type looks can ensure that we haven't seen the last of him, and if we are lucky, in his next film his character will get a name.
Layer Cake is definitely not for all types. If you have problems following CSI, then this movie is not for you. But for those of you who do stick around through the reveals and character developments, I can assure you that the payoff is worth the investment. Layer Cake will be one of those films that in a few years, men will be talking about around the work water-cooler, using words like 'ultra-cool' and maybe even 'classic'.