Layer Cake (16+, 105mins) Directed by Matthew Vaughn ****½
Guy Ritchie has a lot to answer for. While the one-time Mr Madonna’s 1998 film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels breathed new life into the British crime genre, it also spawned countless knock-offs and pale imitations. For every Sexy Beast or Gangster No. 1, there was a Love, Honour and Obey or a Rancid Aluminium.
In 2004, it was the turn of his old Lock, Stock producing partner, Matthew Vaughn, to try his hand at capturing the Ritchie magic. Better known then as Mr Claudia Schiffer, Vaughn’s debut in the comfy chair is nothing short of breathtaking as he melds the usual wideboy humour, frequent flashbacks, cast of diamond and dodgy geezers and colourful language with some truly spectacular camera work, like a series of stunning match and point-of-view shots (including a victim’s view of a beating).
It also probably helps that Vaughn had such rich source material in JJ Connolly’s 2001 cult novel of the same name.
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As in the book, our “hero” is an unnamed young gangster (Daniel Craig). Describing himself as a businessman whose commodity happens to be cocaine, he sticks to strict rules, keeping a low profile, a small team and being careful to avoid guns and the end users of his product. It’s a recipe that has brought him success, so much so that he’s already planning retirement.
However, just when he’s looking to give the game away, his boss asks him a favour. One of his best friend’s daughters has got “hooked on the powder, hooked up with a wrong ‘un and done a runner from rehab”. Our man’s job is to find her as soon as possible.
Then there’s another little job involving one million ecstasy pills, which should be a doddle, but quickly starts going pear-shaped, leaving our protagonist with some major headaches.
As well as a marvellous scenario that boasts more twists and turns than a rollercoaster, Vaughn has also assembled a terrific cast. Colm Meaney (Intermission), Michael Gambon (The Singing Detective) and Dexter Fletcher (Lock, Stock) are among the wideboys on show, while Sienna Miller (Alfie) makes a disappointingly “brief”, but memorable, lingerie-clad appearance.
The trump card though is Craig (Sylvia, The Road to Perdition). He again proves how versatile an actor he is, perfectly pitching this gangster with the right mix of charisma and callousness.
Many say acting is all in the eyes and Craig’s set of baby blues can turn from piercing steel to haunted azure in an instant, with powerful effect.
It’s easy to see why Layer Cake helped put him on the top tier of Bond replacements when Pierce Brosnan stepped down.