The first 10 minutes of Matthew Vaughn's sleek gangland thriller Layer Cake convince you that the biggest high comes not from doing drugs, but dealing them.
Daniel Craig, playing the film's unnamed antihero - billed only as XXXX - narrates a Goodfellas-esque prologue that lays out the paradigm shifts in post-war England's law-breaking populace. Straight-up bank robbers give way to hippie drug offenders, then to a new generation represented by XXXX's impeccable, metrosexual dope pusher. XXXX envisions a future of legalized drugs, and a flamboyant sequence shows tomorrow's drugstore shelves lined with brand-name cocaine and Ecstasy.
But until the "prohibition" ends, XXXX plans to make a fortune, retire early and keep his hands clean.
Craig's performance and Vaughn's direction practically gleam with confidence and intoxicating energy. The introduction culminates with the chiming strains of the Cult's "She Sells Sanctuary" as XXXX motors through the country, an image so triumphant it feels almost like the film's conclusion. It actually marks the dealer's highest moment, as the rest of Layer Cake teaches him hard-knock lessons on how the business of drugs, money and power really work. His education is just getting started.
The British crime story proves as class conscious as any Charles Dickens novel. Faces resembling mugshots muscle into every frame. XXXX's boss, a nouveau riche vulgarian (Kenneth Cranham), stalks a country-club dining room like a shark. He "asks" the dealer to track down the runaway daughter of an even richer crimelord (Michael Gambon), whose aristocratic bearing scarcely conceals a vindictive nature.
More complications come from the Duke (Jamie Foreman, looking like AC/DC's aging Angus Young), a track-suited, bottom-feeding hoodlum who blows into London with a million Ecstasy pills and some vengeful Eastern European mobsters on his heels.
Previously insulated from underworld ugliness, XXXX faces unimaginable levels of treachery and sadism, including a Serbian hitman with a fondness for severed heads.
Adapting his own novel, screenwriter J.J. Connolly constructs so many branching plots that the film feels like it's tracing the map of a giant subway system. Even the mob rivalries of past years take pressing relevance, with Colm Meaney and George Harris giving steady, ruefully amusing performances as elder strong-arm men. At times, all you can do is surrender to Layer Cake's narrative momentum and take it on faith that all will become clear.
Vaughn produced Guy Ritchie's similarly stylish gangster flicks Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and Layer Cake emulates their flashy, high-velocity style. The camera restlessly stalks dance halls, shipyards and even Amsterdam greenhouses. At times the soundtrack bursts with pop music: the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" accompanies a steamy hotel room seduction.
Despite its title, Layer Cake tastes more like the main course, and Ritchie's films the desserts. Vaughn explores how criminality has its own history, yet amounts to a rigged game in which the powerful simply rewrite the rules to suit their interests.
In a star-making performance, Craig provides the eye of the storm, demonstrating a coiled stillness that hints at strength in reserve. The actor affectingly finds the cracks in his character's icy professionalism. His eyes radiate nervousness when, after a painful double-cross, he carries out an assassination. Even after the "justified" killing, his conscience plagues him.
Craig's being touted as the next James Bond, but the actor should instead seek out the next Layer Cake, which proves far more engrossing than the tired spy franchise. (Plus, Sienna Miller, as a highly prized hot blonde, exudes enough sex appeal to upstage a dozen Bond girls.)
Layer Cake exemplifies how recent English gangster films seldom prove as grandly operatic or steeped in social issues as America's Godfather imitators. But that can be good. Unencumbered by self-importance, Vaughn's film provides pulpy entertainment and a neat moral message. Layer Cake dramatizes a lifestyle that's clearly laced with poison, no matter how mouth-watering it first appears.