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British Gangster Month: Layer Cake (2004)

                We conclude British gangster month with Layer Cake, another debut for a promising director, Matthew Vaughn. He’s made a name for himself for his style, kinetic action choreography that’s a visual marvel usually paired with an excellent script and intriguing characters in films like Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class, and Kingsmen: The Secret Service. He had produced the previous films of Guy Ritchie giving him experience in the British crime genre, which combined with his unique flavour and energy make Layer Cake an incredibly underrated gem of a gangster film.
                Based on the novel by J.J. Connelly who also wrote the screenplay, the film concerns an unnamed protagonist credited as XXXX (Daniel Craig) an accomplished drug manufacturer and distributor with plans on an early retirement. He makes a quiet living off the business, aided by an ex-con enforcer Morty (George Harris) to handle the dirty work. However the drug lord he works for Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham) gives him an assignment to find the missing daughter of his acquaintance Eddie Temple (Michael Gambon) who fled rehab and subsequently was apparently kidnapped. Simultaneously he is tasked with brokering a deal for a million ecstasy tablets with a small-time gangster known as the Duke (Jamie Foreman) who stole them from Serbian war criminals in Amsterdam. What’s worse is they’re hunting down both the Duke and XXXX after his name was given to their mysterious kingpin Dragan. And from there the plot takes numerous twists and turns as XXXX works to correct damage done and come out of the mess unscathed and on top.
                The film’s title comes from the hierarchical system of organized crime, showing off the different layers and regions it’s operated at. XXXX, Morty, Jimmy, and Jimmy’s right-hand Gene (Colm Meaney) are clearly at a different level than the Duke’s consortium (most emphasized in a scene where the two sides are negotiating). Essentially it’s the class system and it comes down to the business. Early on XXXX says “I’m not a gangster. I’m a businessman whose commodity happens to be cocaine.” And we’re reminded of this approach to criminal activity throughout. It’s a side of the London underworld that I haven’t seen so far as it applies a degree of class to their work, and it makes it all the more interesting when they have to take more assertive action. The story is smart and intricately weaved adding further significance to the title, as there are more than a few layers of plot developments and character motivations. In that regard you can see the resemblance to the Ritchie films and where some of Vaughn’s inspiration came. But where I think this film exceeds those is in its tone. For as fun as Ritchie’s films were they felt a little distant. There were eccentric characters like Brad Pitt’s Mickey O’Neal and the story melding was a little too convenient. That’s hardly a surprise as those films were half comedies. But this film isn’t, and because it takes its subject matter more seriously, there’s a greater effect of uneasiness, unexpectedness, and threat. Especially as you never know where the story is really going and how the situations will resolve in the end. That, the consequences that crop up for our main characters, and the detailed depiction of drug trade in a modern world make the film feel very real.
                Daniel Craig is pretty good as XXXX (they work around using his name very well). He’s sharp and even a little charismatic. In fact his character here may be more interesting than his incarnation of James Bond (he certainly has the mystique factor). And yeah, this film is regarded by many as quintessential to him having gotten the part of Bond and I believe them. Especially when there are a couple scenes where though ordinarily gun-avoiding, he practices sneaking around in a distinctly Bond fashion. Hell he practically auditions for the part in this film. Colm Meaney as usual is formidable but enjoyable as Gene. Kenneth Cranham and especially Michael Gambon are terrific as ambiguously rival gangsters (though I wonder what was up with Gambon’s tan). George Harris an underrated actor who you’ll remember as the black guy who spoke a couple times in the Harry Potter series is fantastic as Morty bringing a grimness and calm to a part that’s also menacing. The supporting cast consists of Marcel Iures as Dragan’s operative Slavo, Dexter Fletcher as corrupt cop Cody, Tamer Hassan as Morty’s protégé Terry, and Jason Flemying (he’s showed up a lot in these!) as 80’s gangster Crazy Larry. And in addition to Vaughn this film wound up being an early stepping stone for a number of later stars including Tom Hardy as XXXX’s protégé Clarkie, Sally Hawkins, Ben Whishaw, and Burn Gorman as the Duke’s girlfriend Slasher, nephew Sidney, and henchman Gazza respectively, and Sienna Miller was introduced to the world as Tammy, XXXX’s love interest.
                Though the film isn’t quite as energized as Vaughn’s later films, it’s still very stylized and invigorating to watch. In particular, the editing is very skilled with cuts between scenes and actions being flowingly subtle. Some cuts are so tight that changes of scene look to be done in one shot, and other scenes are longer pans, intriguing overheads, or incorporate jump cuts hearkening back to the Ritchie’s films and even Goodfellas. He also does some interesting things with perspective. There are scenes where the audience is given the point of view of a dead body or an unidentified killer. Perhaps the best though and certainly the most memorable scene to me in the film is a scene where Morty encounters the man whose incompetence got him ten years in prison, in a café. After some aggressive small talk, Morty starts beating him up mercilessly and the camera takes on the victim’s point of view. It’s unusual and shocking, and gives the scene greater impact; one that’s already compellingly effective being juxtaposed with the clearly in trouble Duke confronting an unidentified figure, all while Duran Duran’s “Ordinary World” plays over both tension filled scenes. You can see the genesis of Matthew Vaughn’s action style in these rough sequences.
                Layer Cake in its exploration of the class system of organized crime, eclectic and unexpected story, diverse cast, and modern relatable worldview while still managing Vaughn’s unique exaggerated style, is a tremendous British gangster film. I think it’s one of the most underrated gangster films ever make, working as an action and thriller film while telling a smart story with some previously unexplored themes. I’d enjoy a slice of it any day.

                I’ve certainly had a good time looking at British gangster films for the month of September! I’ve gotten to see some great films that I have enjoyed with some unexpectedly great performances. The British have a unique kind of crime film, there’s no way these kind of films would be done in America, and the samples I’ve seen have generally been fascinating, smart, and entertaining. These films have given us Guy Ritchie and Matthew Vaughn as directors, exposed us to actors like Bob Hoskins, Jason Statham, Jason Flemying, Vinnie Jones, Daniel Craig, and Sienna Miller, and I’m sure will continue to be enjoyed by fans looking for a film sub-genre that’s unique, original, and eccentric in that wonderful British way.

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