Layer Cake is one of those films that everybody seems to have heard about after the fact. It was a modest, but largely underground hit when it was released in 2004. But producer Barbara Broccoli was among the people who saw it, and it gave her the idea for who could be the next James Bond. And so now it seems like everybody has heard of Layer Cake as “the film that got Daniel Craig the role of Bond.” Naturally, I had to check it out.
Layer Cake is a seedy little crime film with a fairly realistic tone. Daniel Craig plays the main character and narrator, a drug supplier who doesn’t think of himself as a dealer, but rather a businessman whose business is simply cocaine. It’s a testament to Craig’s performance that it didn’t even occur to me until the end of the film that we are never told his character’s name; he is simply identified as XXXX in the credits, but he has such a strength of presence that it never seems odd that nobody ever addresses him by name. XXXX has his business down to a science. He never deals with the end user, he only deals with parties who come highly recommended, and he doesn’t deal with irregular situations. He’s got a retirement plan already worked out, and is planning on taking it soon. But things are never that simple, and his boss, Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham), tasks him to find the missing daughter of his boss at the same time that XXXX has to deal with a particularly irregular deal, again at Price’s insistence.
Don’t you just hate it when your boss interferes with your work?
Craig is surrounded by great character actors in this film. His partner Morty is played by George Harris, providing a balance to Craig’s character; Morty is normally as calm and collected as XXXX, but while XXXX seems to be calm as a matter of nature, Morty feels more like a coil ready to spring. When he does inevitably go off, it’s a sight to behold. Colm Meaney plays Gene, who acts as a go-between for Price and XXXX; he’s casual, even jovial. And he casually, jovially makes it clear that he’d be perfectly willing to put a bullet between somebody’s eyes if the situation calls for it. There are also various seedy characters, from Jamie Foreman as slovenly drug dealer Duke to Tom Hardy as chemist Clarkie; even the minor roles are brought to life wonderfully as colorful characters and the actors give very convincing performances. And then there is Michael Gambon as Eddie Temple, Price’s boss, the top of the layer cake, as he puts it. While not a large role, it’s both an important one and a very striking one. He has the role of the godfather in the drug empire, and Gambon brings a tremendous sense of presence and subtle menace to the role. You can tell every minute he’s on screen that this guy is unquestionably in charge.
Director Matthew Vaughn was no slouch either, for all that it was his first directorial role. When a film has a small budget, there are a few ways it can pan out. In the case of Layer Cake, the small budget gives the film a sense of authenticity. The criminals have a sense of style (other than Duke), but the action in the film is strictly grounded. There are fistfights and some gun play but there aren’t huge explosions and extended chase scenes. This isn’t to say it’s not exciting, though; the violence in the film has such a visceral feel to it that it’s hard not to be caught up in it. The film is definitely not for the faint of heart, or for the younger audience members. It also includes a liberal dose of the f-word; someone did a tally, and it came out to around 150 uses, or about once every 42 seconds.
And I don’t think they were counting the opening scene were Craig’s character imagines a future where the drug business is run by French Connection U.K.
Layer Cake presents something of a dichotomy: slick criminal characters in a decidedly non-slick environment. It successfully pulls off the sense that these characters imagine themselves as being like the gangsters in The Godfather, all smooth operators or simple businessmen, while their actual criminal enterprises are as seedy and grimy as they are in real life. And it also manages to make XXXX and his allies seem like sympathetic characters even though on some level the audience knows that all their problems are essentially of their own making. Layer Cake may be a film that has earned its recognition only retroactively, but it’s a film that has certainly earned that recognition.