The problem with crime is not that it doesn’t pay, but it pays so well most people have no idea what to do next. Movies about criminals usually wind up being about a) drugs or b) “one last job,” because crime is even more of an addiction than coke. Retiring on the beach is nothing compared to knowing you put one over the fuzz yet again. There’s also the fact that crime tends to attract people who are either too smart for their own good, or too stupid to live. The smart ones get out early, or never start. The stupid ones never have time to regret their mistakes.
Layer Cake deals with one of the smart ones, who would like very much to get out sooner rather than later. He (Daniel Craig) is a midlevel London drug merchant — he gets the stuff in from overseas, cuts it up, farms it out, rakes in a decent profit, and launders it through his legitimate real-estate business. He’s smart in that he keeps his mouth shut, doesn’t throw good money after bad, and is very careful about the people he admits into his inner circle. All of this has kept him spotless through his years in the trade, and now that he’s preparing to leave the business for keeps, it’s all the better that he has no obvious skeletons beating on the closet door. In an amusing touch, we realize only after the credits have rolled that one has ever spoken his name, not even him. He’s only listed as “XXXX” in the credits.
"XXXX" has a job to do for crime boss Jimmy Price —
two of them, in fact, which will land him in boiling water.
One day XXXX is invited to lunch with his boss, Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham), a pudgy, bullet-headed crime lord who seems like a close cousin in manner to Ben Kingsley’s character in the equally-good Sexy Beast. He has a job for XXXX, or rather, two of them: Sort out an ecstasy deal that has gone all Pete Tong, as they say over there, and find out what happened to Eddie Temple’s daughter. Eddie (Michael Gambon) is one rung up the ladder from Jimmy Price, and saying no to either of these men is likely to get you eaten alive. XXXX has better things to do with his time, and so he palms off the missing-girl job onto an associate of his while trying to figure out what the business with the pills really is.
It all turns out to be a real mess. Duke (Jamie Forman), one of Jimmy’s underlings, ripped off the whole lot from a bunch of Serbian nationalists. The Serbs want the pills back, and are not afraid to start a war — not a gang war, but a real war — to do it. XXXX comes up with a plan that seems elegant on the outside — play one side against the other — but it backfires and one by one all of the doors that were prepared to lead him out of the criminal life start slamming shut. Other things go wrong utterly without warning, as when one of XXXX’s associates, Morty (George Harris), bumps into the man who was responsible for sending him upriver, beats him senseless, and has to make himself scarce for a few days. Now he has one less person he can count on, all because of some dim-witted vendetta.
There’s one person XXXX should be able to trust thoroughly, Gene (Colm Meaney, always excellent), but Gene shows an ugly knack for being able to shift gears as well. Late in the film, XXXX does something (I won’t say what) that inspires Gene to nearly beat him to death as well, and I had to note that anyone who numbers people like this among their friends would find enemies a luxury. The Serbs come almost as a relief: All they want is their pills, and they at least have the common sense to shoot at people from a distance. XXXX has no patience for being shot at, but the whole idea of honor among thieves apparently died at least two generations back.
The director, Matthew Vaughn, was producer of another popular pair of British crime-caper movies: Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, both of which I admired more than I really enjoyed. Layer Cake is better than both of them in that it takes its story more seriously — even when people were in trouble in those other two movies, it didn’t really feel like trouble. Cake sports a scene where XXXX gets dangled off the edge of a building, and the film’s willingness to be bloodthirsty to all of its characters gives the moment real menace. There are occasional moments of the kind of visual flair that Barrels and Snatch used — the opening montage, a compressed history of the drug trade in England, is nicely done — but for the most part the movie depends on performances and writing to hit home, not flashy camerawork or gimmicky editing.
Daniel Craig is an actor I have only seen intermittently before — he was in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, but that’s not a movie I’d leave on any résumé — but he takes immediately and easily to the lead role here. He also makes the character compulsively watchable. We want to find out what happens to him, and we empathize with him when he says he’s not a killer and is then forced into a situation where he may indeed have to kill someone pre-emptively to save everyone’s hides. Craig delivers the kind of sardonic, knowing narration that we’ve come to expect from movies like this, but the character’s behavior in the story and Craig’s performance combine to give it weight. I also liked Gambon as Eddie Temple: whenever he smiles, only the mouth is moving, but the eyes are never less then predatory.
Layer Cake was adapted by J.J. Connolly from his own novel, which I actually read long before seeing the film. The book was redolent with the kind of vaguely creepy details about criminal work that made you speculate about the author himself. Unfortunately, it rather stumbles in the last few chapters; the movie, fortunately, has a much cleaner and more efficient ending that covers all the same territory a lot less haphazardly. It starts on the level of a basic crime picture, but it’s been made with a point of view about its material, and it doesn’t step wrong once.
One common trope of crime pictures is that the criminals like to think of themselves as businessmen. XXXX’s problem is that he’s got the right attitude, but the wrong business, and he’s becoming overshadowed by men like Eddie Temple, who started as businessmen and expanded into crime as a side venture. The other week a friend saw Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and after hearing about the miscreancy committed by that outfit, XXXX and his ilk seem downright ineffectual. And judging from XXXX’s face in the last scene, he knows it too. His turf just got gentrified.