I'm not the biggest fan of Western crime cinema, but the UK niche is a welcome exception. There's something about the language/dialects and the general composure of British movie gangsters that makes them so much funnier and more likeable than their US counterparts. It's no surprise then that I ended up liking Matthew Vaughn's Layer Cake the first time I watched it. That was ages ago though and I hadn't seen the movie since, so it was time to give Vaughn's first another look.
If you want to make it as a British director, there are worse ways than to start your venture into directing with a gangster/drug comedy. It did wonders for Danny Boyle, Guy Ritchie even built his entire career on it. It's not a guarantee to success of course, but if you have the chops then you're pretty much set for life. I must admit that Vaughn's first feature film isn't quite up there with its illustrious predecessors, but it's still a very capable gangster film that aptly combines comedy and crime elements.
Layer Cake is based on a novel by the same name, but I don't think it matters all that much. The plot of the film is pretty basic, nothing you haven't seen before in other crime flicks. This is a film that typically hinges on the skills of its director, it's a good thing then that Vaughn was eager to prove his worth. As plain as the story is, Vaughn works hard to turn every scene in something special, and for the larger part he succeeds. There is hardly a dull moment and even the simplest narrative scenes are turned into stylistic highlights.
The plot revolves around an unnamed criminal somewhere halfway up the ladder. He gets his assignments from the rich and powerful drug lords above him, but leaves the dirty work to others. Our mysterious hero is pretty successful and smart, planning to leave to the business once he has saved up enough of a fortune to live out the rest of his life in peace. But right when he wants to step out, he is summoned by his superior for one last job. A shady deal with some lowlife thugs who want to get rid of a shipment of XTC pills. It smells like trouble and of course that's exactly what we're getting.
A film like Layer Cake benefits from looking stylish, luckily Vaughn has visual flair to spare. The camera work is slick, the editing is sharp and well-paced, while the color palette is somewhat muted, but without ever looking dulled or lifeless. Overall the film looks pretty great, but Vaughn picks out a few scenes to spice things up even more. The diner scene in particular (with a possible nod to Avalon) stands out as prime cinematic pleasure. It's moments like these when the film sets itself apart from its peers.
The soundtrack is pretty nifty too. Not the most inspired or original choice of pop music, but it's tailored to perfection. These kinds of pop soundtracks rarely pan out well, but Layer Cake is a notable exception. It's the perfect example of how you can have a rather plain selection of tracks and still make it work for your film. The result is often surprising, bringing something extra to the scenes, which in turn makes them stand out even more. Together with the visuals, the music makes for a fine audiovisual experience.
Daniel Craig is perfectly cast as the nameless criminal. He has composure, class, but he's also slick and sneaky enough to play the part of the elevated gangster. The rest of the cast is filled with familiar faces, thought mostly actors who tend to excel in supporting roles. People like Colm Meaney, Michael Gambon and Jason Flemyng. Some younger faces too, like Ben Whishaw and Tom Hardy, who were both still on their way up while making this film. All in all a very talented, though expected cast who know how to deliver.
Structurally this is a pretty basic film. A drug deal goes wrong, things get messier by the minute and in the end the heroes (or at least, the criminals who we sympathize with) make a final move in the hope of coming out winning. It's a familiar setup and Layer Cake does little to deviate from it. If you expect anything more than a solid genre flick, you'll probably be disappointed by this film, then again Vaughn doesn't pretend to reinvent this genre, instead he tries to make the best of a bunch of familiar elements.
Layer Cake is a film for people who are already fan of British crime comedies and who are looking for their next fix. It's nothing too out of the ordinary or divisive, it's just really well-made genre cinema. It looks stylish, boasts a fun soundtrack and delivers a quirky range of gangsters, ticking all the boxes that makes this niche great. A fine blend of crime and comedy, nothing more, nothing less. If that's your thing, then this is an easy recommend. If not, there's probably very little here for you.