Layer Cake Review
It’s an age-old saying, and one that is probably over-used. But with Layer Cake, such advice rings true...crime doesn’t pay. Filmmakers love a tale of gangsters reaching the top, before falling to their demise - witness Tony Montana’s blistering descent in Brian De Palma’s Scarface, or James Cagney’s classic portrayal of the crime lifestyle in White Heat. These movies often show the seedy underworld as just that - places that most of us will never see, and should never want to see. Here, we have an unnamed drug dealer (let’s call him “Mr. X”) played by Daniel Craig, who is about to embark on - you guessed it - his last job, before hitting the straight-and-narrow. Unfortunately for him, the underworld is reluctant to let him go, and he’ll have to enter the mysterious “layer cake” to keep his head above water...
I guess it was inevitable that Matthew Vaughn would take the director’s chair sooner or later. Best known as the producer of Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock... and Snatch, he was wise to take the directorial reigns for this project; an adaptation of J.J. Connolly’s acclaimed crime novel. It was developed for Ritchie, but he was too busy getting Swept Away by his wife, so Vaughn quickly snapped-up the megaphone duties. And the result is a pleasant one - Layer Cake is a sophisticated piece of work, that promises a lot for the filmmaker. Crime dramas are rarely so intelligent, yet Vaughn isn’t going to escape Ritchie’s shadow that easily. The film is probably too similar to his work, and the modern spate of British gangster flicks, lessening its impact somewhat. After all, it hit cinemas with little fanfare, and disappeared just as quickly. Despite the clichés embedded throughout, Layer Cake is still required viewing for any fan of hard-edged drama.
Effortlessly stylish, Vaughn is revealed as a director with a sharp eye. His debut moves with grace, with beautiful photography (courtesy of Ben V. Davis), and an operatic sense of scope, that punctuates the talky scenes; providing a distinctive atmosphere, and a beautifully modern London. In my opinion - and I’m prepared for an onslaught of hate mail as I write this - Vaughn is much more talented behind the camera than Ritchie, showing restraint with his visual flair. While his last film, the underrated Snatch was in-your-face with attitude, Layer Cake takes a much more leisurely approach; only exploding into exaggerated camerawork for its scenes of realistic violence. One might say that Vaughn’s opus is style over substance, but isn’t that true about Ritchie’s entire oeuvre? Aesthetics aside, the filmmaker had Connolly at his disposal, who also wrote the screenplay.
The problem with Layer Cake, is that the narrative is too dense, with far too many sub-plots vying for our attention. We know that Mr. X wants to quit the business, and his world is explained through a continuous voice-over (a classic technique, that isn’t dying out anytime soon). Above him in this criminal hierarchy, is Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham), who enlists X’s help in finding the missing daughter of kingpin Eddie Temple (Michael Gambon). Meanwhile, his partner-in-crime Gene (Colm Meaney) has arranged to collect a shipment of ecstasy, stolen by wildcard JD A.KA. "The Duke" (Jamie Foreman). Unfortunately, the goods were taken from a group of ruthless Serbians, who have sent an assassin to reclaim their property. Yet, despite his life-threatening situation, X has the time to flirt with the gorgeous Tammy (Sienna Miller), who just so happens to be dating the Duke’s nephew...
Keeping these threads together, is the cast. Armed with Connolly’s thoughtful script, the ensemble has a field day, creating some entirely memorable characters. Poor character development is not one of Layer Cake’s faults. We have an assassin who is studying French via audio tape (“Shut the fuck up! I have a test next week!”), and Meaney’s sinister geezer, who likes to keep dead bodies in his freezer. He also possesses an arsenal of firearms. Gambon is his reliable self too, gliding into the film with artful precision. The script occasionally falters in giving him something meaningful to say (the explanation of the term “layer cake” is disappointingly poor), but he rises above such problems with skill. Only the gorgeous Miller is underused, but that was to be expected in this sea of tough-guy cocknies. She just about holds her own as the films principle female, and no men will complain about her lingerie scene (I didn’t).
Craig is the main focus here though, and he’s fantastic. His character belongs to a new breed of organised crook, and Craig is mesmerisingly good, whether dispensing with cocaine or socialising with his “friends”. He’s detached from the world around him, until death comes knocking on his door. There’s even an emotionally-draining sequence, in which Craig must face his guilt after taking the situation into this own hands. It’s a wonderful touch in a script that hardly reeks of originality. His ascension through each layer is treated with care by the actor, whose turn here is positively electric. With some hard-hitting violence and a conclusion that takes the viewer by surprise, Layer Cake succeeds as well-oiled entertainment. In other words, you’ll eat it up...
The release of Layer Cake was eagerly-awaited by some last year, but it under-performed at the box office. It has yet to play in the States, but perhaps this DVD release will help to rectify the situation? Columbia have awarded Vaughn’s debut with a two-disc release, which has plenty of interesting features for aficionados to savour. It also presents the film in a typically yummy transfer...
The Look and Sound
The anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer reproduces Vaughn’s style with great care. It’s possibly the best-looking British film in quite some time, and the DVD does it justice. The colour palette is wonderfully presented here, with a great deal of vibrancy. The picture is sharp, and possesses sufficient depth. Blacks are good too, and there were no serious bouts of compression or edge enhancement. Grain was also kept to a minimum, and the print was free of defects or damage. Layer Cake looks great.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio isn’t quite as flashy, but it’s robust and fairly active. The surrounds get plenty of opportunities to assault the viewer (especially during a coffee shop punch-up, and the police chase through a warehouse). The dialogue is transferred clearly, and the soundtrack is pretty eclectic, with everything from Duran Duran to The Scissor Sisters erupting from your home cinema. It could have been stronger throughout, and it lacks significant punch, but it’s a well above-average and entertaining track.
Naturally for a two-disc release, the extras on offer are pretty diverse. Most of the material here is involving, and helps to document the complex narrative.
Audio Commentary by director Matthew Vaughn and writer J.J. Connolly
This is a low-key, but detailed track between the pair, who are clearly proud of Layer Cake. They discuss the trials of getting the film into production (it was, after all, low-budget by Snatch standards), adapting the novel, getting the cast right, following in the footsteps of Guy Ritchie and executing the visual style. Vaughn comes across as a very confident filmmaker, and his experience in the producing field has clearly paid-off. Connolly mainly sticks to the plot, how we went about bringing the story elements together, and what he excised. The droll nature of their voices may turn some viewers away, but there’s a lot of detail to take from this commentary.
There are 13 of these in total, and come complete with optional commentary by Vaughn and Connolly. There is nothing here of note really, but the footage is entertaining. Some of the key discussions in the film are extended, and a few plot elements get more screen time. Otherwise, it’s small character moments or dialogue pieces. Much more interesting, is the collection of alternate endings, which are much happier than the conclusion Vaughn eventually chose. The scenes are presented anamorphically, and look fantastic.
These are followed by the “Storyboard” section, which comprises two scenes. You can view the artwork and the finished scene simultaneously, or switch between them with your remote.
First of all, we have a pretty decent “Promo Featurette”, which was broadcast shortly before the films theatrical release. It combines footage from the film with talking-head material, which includes Daniel Craig, Sienna Miller, Vaughn, Connolly, and Jamie Foreman. It’s typical EPK-style material, but it’s interesting to hear their perspectives on the production while they were shooting. By contrast, we have the very good “NFT Q&A” with Craig and Vaughn. Recorded at the National Film Theatre, before a live audience, the piece goes into some great detail about Layer Cake’s genesis from page to screen. Running for roughly half-an-hour, it’s a intriguing look at the film, and easy viewing.
Rounding out the set, is the FC/Kahuna music video, a photo gallery and the theatrical trailer.
The Bottom Line
A respectable crime drama, and an entertaining debut for Matthew Vaughn, Layer Cake really impresses on DVD. Fans of Guy Ritchie will probably give this a look on principle, but it shouldn’t be compared to Lock, Stock... or Snatch - it’s a different beast altogether. Columbia’s two-disc set is technically sound, and gets my recommendation.