Layer Cake sounds like something Martha Stewart might help you with, but in fact it's a crime thriller from England, directed by Matthew Vaughn, who produced that pair of Guy Ritchie rugby matches, 1998's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and 2000's Snatch. Despite its title, Layer Cake is just as grittily entertaining as the Ritchie films were. Fights erupt, people are shot, and a head gets carted around in a cooler. But Vaughn isn't as aggressively stylish as Ritchie ' all those freeze-frames, jump-cuts and split-screens. And he's cleaned up the Cockney accents just enough that we have a fighting chance of making out what the characters are saying. To be honest, I couldn't always follow the plot, but it didn't seem to matter. There was always somebody doing something worth watching.
Daniel Craig, who's been rumored to be the next James Bond, plays a drug dealer ' a midlevel employee in an underworld that has as many layers as, well, you know. And when the movie opens, he appears to have everything worked out. He has a code he lives by, which includes such helpful bromides as "Never be too greedy." And having socked away a little nest egg, he plans to walk away from the business. But in the underworld, and especially in movies set in the underworld, you can never just walk away. Something always pulls you back under, like a chunk of concrete tied to your ankle. And our admirably nongreedy hero, who manages to make it all the way through the film without revealing his name, soon finds himself embroiled in schemes involving a million Ecstasy tablets, a pair of Mr. Bigs and a Serbian gang.
Serbian gangs have apparently replaced Russian gangs as the guys you really, really don't want to mess with, and when this one gets its drug shipment lifted by some two-bit ponces, it sends reverberations throughout the British class structure. Everybody wants to get a hand on it, but nobody wants to touch it, because even hardened criminals tend to lose their heads (if you know what I mean) when dealing with the Serbs. Part of the pleasure of watching Layer Cake, in fact, is in trying to figure out who's doing what to whom. Everybody seems one step ahead of everybody else and two steps ahead of us. Fortunately, Vaughn ties it all together with some beautifully elegant transitions from one shot or scene to the next. If Ritchie's films are a little raggedy around the edges, this one is like a well-tailored suit, the seams carefully hidden.
Craig's hair has been dyed blond to bring out the Steve McQueen in his eyes, and he certainly knows how to pull off grace under pressure. (Shaken, not stirred.) But just as enjoyable is the large cast of supporting characters, led by Kenneth Cranham as one of the Mr. Bigs and Michael Gambon as the other, both of them obviously relishing the opportunity to swirl some four-letter words around in their mouths. As for the other characters, their names alone should have sent Craig's reluctant middleman heading for the exit ' Kinky, Slasher, Tiptoes. No wonder he feels out of place; he doesn't even have a name, let alone a nickname. "I'm not a gangster," he says early on, before beginning his climb up the crooked ladder of success. "I'm just a businessman whose commodity happens to be cocaine."
is what he gets for minding his own business.