I’ve always had mixed feelings about drugs. On the one hand, I don’t really care about what people do with their body as long as it doesn’t endanger anybody else. On the other hand, on the very rare occasions someone has offered drugs I never went the extra mile and actually tried it. If the main character from Matthew Vaughn’s crime thriller Layer Cake (2004) had his way, I could one day make that decision by walking into a pharmacy and legally buying whatever I want. Until that day, we will still get brilliant films such as this one about criminals in the drug business trying to make a living as though it was just another day at the office. Welcome to the layer cake son.
This was an interesting film to watch at the time it came out given its director and star. Matthew Vaughn was known as the executive producer of the Guy Ritchie films Snatch and Lock, Stock and Tow Smoking Barrels so expectations were for another gangster comedy featuring characters with exocentric names like Big Chris and Brick Top. This was also two years before Casino Royale so Daniel Craig as the nameless drug dealer was better known for supporting roles in Tomb Raider and Road to Perdition. Another sign times have changed: I first saw this movie while in college in Quebec City after renting it from the video store. Now I live in Alberta and Blockbuster has officially gone out of business. The drug trade on the other hand is alive and kicking and there is talk of a sequel to Layer Cake with Jason Statham taking over from Daniel Craig.
Statham will have big shoes to fill as Craig’s character immediately grabs you with his professionalism. In an opening monologue he explicitly says he is not a gangster and emphasizes the importance of certain rules to survive the drug business, mainly not making waves and not being greedy. He is so good he never tells the audience his name, and is identified in the credits only as XXXX. This nameless dealer has a successful business in London buying and selling cocaine for supplier Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham). With his associates Gene (Colm Meaney) and Morty (George Harris) he avoids the violent aspect of the business and focuses on making enough money to retire.
It is characters just out of Guy Ritchie’s handbook that end up giving him a major headache. At Price’s instruction, he must organize the distribution of a major load of ecstasy pills courtesy of low-level gangster The Duke (Jamie Foreman). What XXXX learns only too late is that the risk-taking Duke stole the pills from Serbian war criminals. The Serbians saw The Duke’s face during the heist and by association put XXXX in their crosshairs, or specifically in the crosshairs of an assassin called Dragan who collects people’s heads.
Two other story strands further complicate matters. The dealer is tasked by Price to track down the daughter of his associate Eddie Temple (Michael Gambon). Also, after meeting The Duke’s nephew at a bar he becomes attracted to his girlfriend Tammy (Sienna Miller) who is equally interested in meeting him in a hotel room. This leads to a great sequence where the dealer almost gets to take a respite from the criminal dealings by sleeping with Tammy only to be taken to an impromptu meeting with Temple on the hotel roof.
You know you have a great gangster movie when the plot becomes so convoluted even the main character doesn’t know what is going on. During the meeting with Temple, so many twists and turns are revealed the unnamed professional has to ask twice for clarification.
This is a truly fascinating criminal. If drug dealing was legal he could retire and give classes to aspiring young dealers, yet he has his flaws. Hanging around with a woman who already has a boyfriend is not a good idea, and it is an even worse idea to tell an assassin to fuck off over the phone when you realize he doesn’t have your address. In a slightly hypocritical moment, XXXX reminds his friend he hates guns only to start playing with one because he finds it pretty.
Although not as funny as Guy Ritchie’s films, Layer Cake is another great British gangster film, filled with low-level criminals who hang out at pubs while the people at the top of the cake go to elite country clubs. Of course the universal thing to remember is that once you arrive at the top, you have nowhere to go but down.