UK 2004 : Matthew VAUGHN : 115 mins
Stylish but ultimately vacuous British crime film, overpopulated, overplotted and lacking the compelling central presence necessary to hold it together.
“Here’s two we made earlier” intones uber-chef Marco Pierre White during the Layer Cake trailer, wheeling into view two actual birthday-style cakes iced with the titles of Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. ‘We’ in this context meaning Ska Films, meaning producer Matthew Vaughn. The difference this time is that it’s Vaughn himself in the director’s chair – and, to retain the culinary metaphor, his moral seems to have been ‘if the recipe works, why change the ingredients?’
Layer Cake doesn’t adhere completely to the Ritchie template – the crooks on show here are slightly older than Lock/Snatch‘s aspiring twentysomething ne’er-do-wells, their criminality a suave remove or two away from the kind of GBH and robbery Ritchie’s heroes got themselves tangled up in. But we’re still in a stylised present-day London of dodgy geezers, ill-advised scams, seedy bars, sudden violence, guns, drugs, shady businessmen, etc, populated by the likes of Dexter Fletcher and Jason Flemyng.
Our guide is XXXX (Daniel Craig). But this ‘XXXX’ is nothing to do with either Vin Diesel’s xXx or Castlemaine Lager. The character billed as XXXX in the credits does have a name. But it’s never used in conversation by himself or anyone he meets, and it is also withheld in the narration which bookends the movie: “If I told you that, then you’d be as wise as me.” This is the line on which J J Connolly ended his novel – his screenplay adaptation adds a sting in the tail, but the twist isn’t to the picture’s advantage. Instead, it feels like a desperate attempt to inject some tragic irony and thereby pep up a somewhat weak finale.
But to get back to the kitchen: at several stages during Layer Cake we get the distinct feeling that Vaughn and Connolly are going to surprise us by adding in some unexpected, dark, original flavourings – but this never quite happens. And the results aren’t really sufficiently distinctive to justify yet another British crime movie, especially from this particular stable – in the wake of Snatch, Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast raised the bar several notches higher.
A couple of efforts have commendably steered a disreputable subgenre down ambitious, intriguingly disturbing psychological alleyways: Mr In-Between and Gangster No.1 revolved around (respectively) a genuinely tormented protagonist and a genuinely repellent sociopath. Gangster No.1 is, Ritchie’s confections apart, the most obvious reference point for Layer Cake: both movies have one foot in London’s past underworld (the 60s for Gangster No.1, the early 70s here), both coyly withhold the name of their preeningly self-obsessed central characters.
But Layer Cake‘s XXXX is a much less troubled figure than either the ‘Gangster Number One’ or ‘Mr In-Between’: he goes through some tough times, to be sure, and suffers no small degree of physical discomfort along the way. But XXXX feels bad only because the deals he has gotten himself mixed up with are going bad – not because he comes to question the rectitude or morality of deals themselves, or the life he’s chosen. He’s on the verge of “retirement” – but for the simple reason that he’s earned enough cash to put his feet up. Because of the character’s lack of dimensions, the is a frustrating waste of a very talented actor in Craig. Specifically, it’s a great waste of a great face, a great pair of eyes: Craig’s gaunt appearance seems set up for a severe psychological ordeal… which never really materialises. Instead there’s one brief sequence when, consumed by guilt after offing a traitorous former colleague, he gulps down pills and alcohol. Psychosis seemingly beckons – until we abruptly cut to next morning and XXXX proceeds breezily along with his business, apparently without a single lasting mental scar.
Craig has enough ability to make the most of even this underwritten role, but he’s unsurprisingly upstaged by a couple of his co-stars. There’s an amusing ‘Mr Big’ cameo from a teak-tanned Michael Gambon as Temple, one of those movie-world criminals given to implausibly expansive, verbose philosophising. His fancy-talk includes an explanation of the film’s enigmatic title: the “layers” are, apparently, the levels of shit one must negotiate to reach the top of the criminal pile.
It’s relative unknown Tamer Hassan who emerges as the real name to watch, however. As in The Football Factory, this blokeishly imposing mid-thirties Turkish-Cypriot Cockney displays enormous presence despite severely restricted screen-time. His character here spends much of the movie on the sidelines: literally, as he’s deputised by XXXX to spy on a certain shady operation “day and night,” thus effectively removing him from the main action. This sets up a sleight-of-hand ploy involving a mysterious Serbian hit-man, but it’s a trick which adds up to very little. Once again, Ritchie and Connolly are guilty of wasting a key resource: Hassan’s charisma (he’s potentially a British George Clooney) is frittered away on a subsidiary part so marginal that many of Layer Cake‘s viewers might struggle to name the character he’s playing.
This is symptomatic of a wider failing in Connolly’s screenplay – the source novel isn’t especially long, but the author seems reluctant to dispense with even the most minor figure or subplot (although all female characters are shunted crudely to the peripheries). The result is that we’re overwhelmed by the sheer number of participants, whose various schemes rapidly snarl up into a perplexing ball of confusion. Alert readers will note that, even after 900 words, this review has made virtually no attempt at synopsis. That’s because even the most attentive viewer will have lost their grasp on the plot by the halfway stage – this is another of those tiresome movies where you know the story is (A) wildly complex, and (B) not the effort of unravelling.
To simplify, Connolly combines two very shopworn thriller strands: XXXX is tasked by Temple to track down his errant, junkie daughter. His efforts are complicated by the antics of The Duke (Jamie Foreman), a volatile low-ranking member of his organisation who has ripped off a huge quantity of ecstasy tablets. Unfortunately for all concerned, these turn out to be the property of an especially vicious gang of Eastern European mobsters: here the Serbs (including that mysterious hitman) occupy the position which would be filled in an American production by the Russian mafia.
These plots don’t really mesh, and this prevents Layer Cake from functioning very smoothly on the basic level of storytelling. There’s no real impetus or momentum driving us forward to the next twist, the next double-cross, and the comedy/seriousness balance is frequently off-kilter. But the ungainly material is directed with a consistently watchable stylishness by Vaughn – slicker and cooler than his Madonna-marrying protege – who marshals notable contributions from editor Jon Harris and cinematographer Ben V Davis. He only really lets the side down with his hackneyed choice of soundtrack cuts, including the wildly overfamiliar intro to the Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ intro. In later sections, meanwhile, Vaughn deploys Michael Mann favourite Lisa Gerrard’s trademark portentous wailing in an attempt to add instant gravitas.
This doesn’t work, because Vaughn and Connolly have never bothered to fill in any substance beneath the picture’s alluring surfaces. Vaughn’s moments of visual trickery are just window-dressing: pointlessly “cool” touches which ultimately betray his lack of originality, his second-hand aesthetic. Time and again he shows us the mini-Manhattan skyline of Canary Wharf, but with no context, no analysis. It’s just a series of expensive skyscrapers on the edge of central London: The Long Good Friday‘s grim prophecy come to chrome-and-glass non-life.
29th September, 2004
[seen 27th September : Odeon, Newcastle-upon-Tyne : press show]
by Neil Young