Directed by Matthew Vaughn. Screenplay by J.J. Connolly, based on his novel. Produced by Adam Bohling, David Reid, Matthew Vaughn. Music by Ilan Eshkari & Lisa Gerrard. Photographed by Ben Davis. Edited by Jon Harris. Production designed by Kave Quinn. Starring Daniel Craig, Colm Meaney, Kenneth Cranham, George Harris, Jamie Foreman, Sienna Miller, Michael Gambon, Marcel Iureş.
Matthew Vaughn’s Layer Cake is a stylistic exercise applied to deeply traditional material, which is just fine as long as the style is fun to watch, and in this case it is. Surely the need is not urgent for another crime drama about gangsters who dream of getting out of the business, but Layer Cake is only half about its story and spends the other half on its approach. In structure, it recalls films like Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas in how it explores the nuts and bolts of a criminal enterprise, but that film had a scope and attitude that elevated it above the standard. Layer Cake, on the other hand, is sometimes a little detached, a little small in scale (intentionally so), and a little grounded. Perhaps that’s for the best, since at film’s open we are escorted through a labyrinth of drug operations by the narration Mr. XXX (Daniel Craig), who extols the values of several golden rules, one of them being, simply: never be too greedy.
Mr. XXX (we never his real name) is a middleman for a English drug organization, and he’s a smooth and sophisticated customer. He’s a working class bloke who likes nice suits and tidiness, and generally holds himself above his own co-workers. He is correct in that he is smarter than the lot of them, but incorrect in his assumption that that intelligence will shield him from any danger. During the early passages of Layer Cake, he explains his job with a sense of integrity and instruction that is recognizably British, and yet also shares some similarities with another Scorsese film, Casino, which is about another businessman who is conversational and informative, yet has overestimated his intelligence by a few fatal degrees. I realize that all these comparisons to Scorsese might be a little unfair, but I think when any crime drama puts the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” on the soundtrack, I think it is purposefully inviting the comparison.
Mr. XXX is the kind of chap who thinks that no matter what your line of work is, if you can talk smartly and can make everyone happy, then trouble will never follow you home. He knows that violence exists in organized crime, but he hasn’t developed a taste for it, doesn’t want to, and tries to minimize its appearance in his own little pocket of the organization. That this places him off balance when the bloody mechanics of the plot kick in is perhaps inevitable, but its made palatable by Craig’s performance, full of the thuggish class that made him such a perfect pick for James Bond. And also by the group dynamics that gradually shift when Mr. XXX is forced to get his hands dirty: the film’s supporting cast is a veritable roll call of colorful English character actors (Colm Meaney, Tom Hardy, George Harris, and the invaluable Michael Gambon) who seem at home on the streets and yet bring in near-imperceptible baggage from previous roles you half-remember seeing them in.
The plot, which involves a botched drug deal involving pharmaceuticals, Serbian gangsters, and lots of double-crosses, is your pretty standard list of crime film ingredients, and even the central fact we learn about Mr. XXX, that he plans to get out of the business when the time is right, is hardly fresh; we can hardly hear it articulated without giving hearty chuckles. What I wish to discuss is the film’s style…and for once, I am not referring to its level of crudity, its editing tricks, or look-at-me shot choices. Instead, Vaughn’s film is more subtle and insidious, using a cool command of film language to sound precisely the right notes. This is the kind of film that you can’t just listen to–you have to watch it, and I feel like every film should be like that, really.
Geography is a unifying factor in Vaughn’s style. Unlike many other directors who flourish in an era where computers can cut every microsecond, Vaughn slows down, and allows us to drink in the specifics. He enjoys establishing the details that separate rock shops, warehouses, palatial country clubs where men like Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham), X’s supplier, hold court, and the scummy drug den where an OD victim crucial to the plot is found. Vaughn’s camera emphasizes control, going crazy only during scenes that show characters losing said control. Then, tellingly, he regains composure, which is a nice little device that keeps us from getting numb. After one brutal confrontation in a coffee shop, two surviving characters emerge into the street as the camera does a 360 around them. That kind of move is a standard-issue indulgence, but then the film contrasts it with the following antiseptic shot of two men going in opposite directions. The film’s moments of violence are made more powerful by the way the film seems to treat them as shocking intrusions on the more static material, which perfectly compliments the personality of Mr. XXX.
A lot of directors these days seem torn between visuals that show off, and ones that tell the story. Vaughn’s visuals do both. One early scene features a trip to the pharmacy for Mr. XXX, and as he talks over the soundtrack about how drug companies would distribute all narcotics if not for the legal issues, rows and rows of generic bottles labeled “ecstasy” and “cocaine” slowly morph into Listerine and advil. Cute, yes, but also with a purpose, as it reinforces the blasé attitude that Mr. XXX has towards the distribution of illegal drugs, a worldview that is threatened when he starts discovering dead bodies, some due to the realities of addiction, others from the realities of being involved in the drug trade.
The film piles on several well-done sequences. A trip to a nightclub introduces Mr. XXX to Tammy (Sienna Miller), a sexy blonde who has two functions in the plot, with the primary one being that she is a sexy blonde. Yet, you have to enjoy the bravery with which Vaughn dramatizes their meeting, as Mr. XXX stares at her whrithing figure on the floor, the camera stays on him for at least half a minute, backing away to reveal Tammy’s slimy boyfriend Sidney (Ben Whishaw) shouting in X’s ear about things he can’t even pretend to feign interest in. In one really nifty scene towards the end of the movie, Craig sits in the office of a high-level kingpin while, in the background, unnoticed, a window shows a drug deal on a warehouse floor that ends in a way that he, for once, did not anticipate.
What keeps Layer Cake from greatness is its coldness, which extends from its flippant dialogue all the way to the precocious detail of where we never learn our main character’s name. Vaughn got his start under the auspices of director Guy Ritchie (Snatch, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels), and you see some of the same techniques used here in its depictions of the criminal underworld, as well as ones re-repurposed from Ritchie’s main inspiration, Quentin Tarantino. But Ritchie and Tarantino mined similar material for comedy, while Ritchie, left to his own devices, pretty much plays it straight. The distinction is welcome, but I think Ritchie misses his angle of attack. The film needs more…something. More heart, more energy, more uplift…I dunno, something. Instead, we get a five-fingered exercise with a nasty trick ending, one that practically dares us to believe we just wasted our time with a shaggy dog story. I don’t think we did, but, still, it’s a smug way to close.
Movies like Layer Cake function primarily as calling-card movies, where the whole point is not to deliver a gripping narrative, but to announce the arrival of a new talent. Much like the horror genre, crime dramas attract two types of crowds: the ones that love the genre and will see anything in it, and the ones who care not one way or the other, but are happy to see what new blood will do with shopworn material. These films may have familiar faces, but in reality their directors are the stars, because they have accepted the challenge to find a fresh take on things we’ve seen a million times. Vaughn, for the most part, succeeds ably here, and if Layer Cake is an attempt by an artist to get his name out there and move on to bigger things, perhaps we should reflect that Vaughn has done so, quite capably.
Vaughn’s career has taken curious turns since Layer Cake. He was signed to direct the third X-Men film and then left the project under a cloud that looked suspiciously like the makings of studio interference. And then he mounted the charming fantasy-comedy Stardust, which is pretty far removed from the gritty urban decay of Layer Cake, I must say. Then he made a marriage of crime drama and superhero fantasy with Kick-Ass, which was more thoughtful and less arch than it could have been, and now he has finally wound his way back to the X-Men (his new film, X-Men: First Class, arrived in theaters on Friday).
It would stymie some to find a connective tissue for Vaughn’s work, but I think I have it. Above all, I suspect Vaughn delights in subverting expectations, to take genre material we understand as routine and make it fresh. We see that in Layer Cake, in which he slid out from under Guy Ritchie by tilting the same material in a different direction. And with Stardust (adapted from Neil Gaiman’s book) he combined fantasy with irony and was true to both, which was a recipe that The Princess Bride established, but did not share with others. And with Kick-Ass he made a stealth parody of superhero epics right in the middle of a glut of comic book films. Even his most traditional undertaking, the sequel/prequel X-Men: First Class, gains something when you note the truncated amount of time he had to make it. The fact that it is any good is impressive, the fact that it bests all other entries in its series is downright miraculous.
What all this says to me is that Vaughn is a gifted director, one that I eagerly anticipate future projects from. Unlike many filmmakers who started with calling card projects, Vaughn has not once cashed in. It is typical for a director to establish himself, and then play it safe, maybe with an expensive romantic comedy, or something. Instead, Vaughn takes risks, and has chosen projects carefully, ones that appeal to him. Like Mr. XXX, he fancies a mode of elegance in his operations, refusing to sell out to dirty work. What is his secret? I think Mr. XXX sums it up best in the opening of Layer Cake: “Never be too greedy.” And he isn’t. He is far too stylish for that.
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