Directed by: Matthew Vaughn || Produced by: Adam Bohling, David Reid, Matthew Vaughn
Screenplay by: JJ Connolly || Starring: Daniel Craig, Colm Meaney, Kenneth Cranham, George Harris, Jamie Foreman, Sienna Miller, Michael Gambon, Tom Hardy
Music by: Lisa Gerrard, Ilan Eshkeri || Cinematography by: Ben Davis || Edited by: Jon Harris || Country: United Kingdom || Language: English
Running Time: 106 minutes
Matthew Vaughn, the longtime producer of films like Snatch (2000) and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and later director of subversive, sardonic genre-favorites Kick-Ass (2010), X-Men: First Class (2011), and this year’s Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015), first broke out his trademark satirical style with Layer Cake way back in 2004. In many ways, Layer Cake (LC) would become more silently influential through its debuts of its star and director, rather than any sort of magnificent critical or box office reception for the film itself.
Daniel Craig, who spent years playing bit parts and underappreciated supporting roles in films such as Elizabeth (1998), Laura Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), and Road to Perdition (2002), finally got his big lead-break with Vaughn’s directorial debut, which would set him up for the role we all know him for today: James Bond. Ironically, though Craig is great in this film as he is in most every film, the character he plays in LC is the polar opposite of the one he would later reinvent with Casino Royale (2006) two years later. Craig can lead a movie like it’s nobody’s business, but in LC’s world of coked-up drug-dealers and vengeful, psychopathic Serbian war criminals, Craig is anything but a secret agent-badass. Craig’s unnamed protagonist is smart, calculating, and quirky, but he’s appalled by violence, hates guns, and is a physical lightweight at best. One could say that Craig’s role here could be one of the many mid-level bad guys his Bond persona would beat the crap out of later in his career.
The rest of the movie around Craig is similarly intelligent and flashy, but overall much less consistent. On par with the rest of Vaughn’s later filmography, LC is stylish and well-paced but narratively inconsistent. The plot is full of twists and fun surprises, but much of the conflicts are confusing, numerous minor and major characters come and go with little explanation, and it’s hard to get too attached to many characters beyond Craig.
Much of the film is lifted by Vaughn’s strong visual direction and the supporting cast, who do what they can with the mediocre script. Prolific Star Trek actor Colm Meaney and George Harris star as Craig’s considerably more violent, bloodthirsty business associates and do much to carry the story with violent gags and memorable one-liners. Their chemistry with Craig is perhaps the best thing about the film other than Vaughn’s visual style.
Speaking of which, Vaughn does a great job conveying the story’s suave gangster-flavors and contrasting the gritty, gory violence with numerous cleaner, more posh scenes in flashy clubs, kingpin mansions, and scenic tours of London. The film has a wonderful variety of visuals that compliment its main characters well. Everything they do has such rich flavor and style, so it’s disappointing how much of the plot feels like a series of loose events of “things that just happen” strung together by a thin plot.
Altogether, Layer Cake is a great example of a promising first-time director and strong cast being hampered by so-so writing. Vaughn has since proven himself to be a capable filmmaker, but he’s not experienced enough here to turn a mediocre script into a great movie like, say, JJ Abrams did with Star Trek (2009). The film’s worth watching to see how far much of its cast (e.g. Craig, Tom Hardy, Sienna Miller, etc.) and its director have come, but as a standalone project it’s none too memorable.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDED: Craig and company are great as a misfit gang of drug-dealers playing way out of their league. Their wacky adventures are more than a little convoluted, but they’re fun. Vaughn endows his feature-film debut with style, suave character, and cool, wide-ranging visuals. The soundtrack’s good, too.
— However… JJ Connolly’s adapted screenplay of his own work lacks much of the energy of Vaughn’s direction and the cast’s personalities. The plot is confusing and often limps when it should sprint. The ending is dumb.
—> ON THE FENCE: Layer Cake is a fun movie, but it’s not that accessible to non genre-enthusiasts or non-Craig fans. As it stands, the film is more of an enticing artifact with which one can examine the humble beginnings of some of England’s greatest movie stars… rather than a great film in its own right.
? Seriously, you should check out the soundtrack.