‘Lock, Stock…’ and ‘Snatch’ producer Matthew Vaugh has cooked up the unsavoury ‘Layer Cake’. Natski tastes it.
In 1998 Guy Richie breathed new life into the Brit gangster flick with ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’, a stylish and snappy take on the genre featuring a labyrinthine plot, a big cast and a witty, fast-moving script. The film sparked a wave of Brit crime flicks of variable quality (including Richie’s own ‘Lock, Stock…’ retread, ‘Snatch’), which arguably reached its high point in 2000 with Johnathan Glazer’s compellingly perverse ‘Sexy Beast’. Now Richie’s producer Matthew Vaughn has made his directorial debut (adapted from J.J Connolly’s novel) with a stylish, snappy Brit gangster flick, featuring a labyrinthine plot, a big cast and… you get the picture.
Daniel Craig plays the central character, referred to only as Mr X, a cocaine and ecstasy dealer who wants to make… .you guessed it, one last deal before he goes straight. Unfortunately crime boss Jimmy Price (Cranham) steps in first, asking him to track down the smack-addicted daughter of his associate, Eddie Temple (Gambon). Simultaneously, Craig’s back-up hard man Gene (Meaney) wants him to act as middleman for a giant ecstasy deal with raving psycho the Duke (Foreman), little knowing that said shipment of pills has been stolen from a gang of ruthless Serbian war criminals, who have promptly sent a merciless assassin, Drago, to eliminate those responsible. X quickly engages the services of a couple of old pals (Fletcher & Flemyng) to track down the missing girl, while flirting with witless blonde Tammy (Miller) and trying to prevent his other back up nutcase, Morty (Harris), from beating an old enemy to death.
An over-complicated plot and over-populated cast list are just two of ‘Layer Cake’s problems. Rather like those schoolyard games where eleven year-old boys try to outdo each other by describing how many girls they’ve shagged, the film introduces character after character of successively greater brutality, as if desperately trying to prove its ‘hard’ credentials. It’s as though Vaughn is saying, “Here’s a really hard bloke. Now, here’s an ever harder bloke. Hold on, here’s a bloke so hard he can barely drink his tea. Wait a minute, think that bloke’s hard? Check out this bloke…” and so on. The cumulative effect of this self-conscious one-upmanship is to utterly alienate the viewer, who ends up watching a cartoon parade of dead-eyed sociopaths, none of whom have a single interesting feature.
That, simply put, is the film’s most fatal flaw: one simply doesn’t care about any of the characters. Despite the lengthy backtracking for exposition, Vaughn can’t find layers of depth in his army of homicidal maniacs sufficient to make us to become interested in what happens to them. Craig, an excellent actor in the right role (‘Sylvia’, ‘The Mother’) can’t do much with the nameless central protagonist because he’s a cipher, a nebbish. When Bob Hoskins is captured by the IRA at the end of ‘The Long Good Friday’, we’re afraid for him, because the episodes of psychotic brutality we’ve witnessed him indulging in have been tempered by equally believable scenes with his family. When Ray Winstone is dragged back into the sordid underworld in ‘Sexy Beast’, we feel a sense of real loss, because of the threat it poses to his comfy, loving life with Amanda Redman. There are no such equivalents here for Craig. His character has no private life, in fact even his home seems to be a barely-furnished muted avocado shell (like ‘Snatch’ and, it must be said, ‘Lock, Stock…’, Vaughn’s films seem to suffer from a definite deficiency of imagination in the production design department).
As well as failing to provide any emotional groundwork, the film also occupies a moral vacuum. Despite Craig’s various sufferings throughout, the underlying ethos seems to be that being a drug dealer’s a pretty cool lifestyle choice, where you get to dress sharp, drive a cool car, chat up sexy birds and hang out with some well ‘ard geezers. His voice-over provides a blank, almost sociopathic justification for his character’s ugly trade, rationalising it as being just another aspect of our materialistic supply and demand culture: “Treat cocaine and ecstasy like any other commodity,” he urges. Deprived of a moral context or any emotional connection with the characters, there’s no sense of loss or impact when the bodies start piling up. We’re better off without the lot of them.
That’s not to say that the film is utterly without compensations. Ben Davis’ camerawork is often handsome and, despite their shallow roles, virtually all the cast acquit themselves well (although, while it’s not fair to judge Miller on the basis of her perfunctory and irrelevant appearance here, one can’t help noting that she is frightfully skinny and also prone to Victoria Beckham’s habit of odd lip contortions), it’s just that it’s all too, too familiar. It all comes across as a vapid wet dream for FHM-reading wannabe wangsters, a feeling underscored by the toe-curlingly arch trailer, featuring an awkward-looking Marco Pierre White presenting the movie as recipe.
‘Lock, Stock…’ managed to cleverly ape the genre at the same time as revitalising it, adding some anarchic humour and cracking dialogue to the usual mix of dodgy geezers and hard men. ‘Layer Cake’ doesn’t have any original ideas so nicks them shamelessly from a succession of Brit gangster films (Craig’s breathy phone exchange with Tammy is an obvious steal from ‘Get Carter’. The rampaging Serb hitman echoes ‘Snatch’. The beating-by-soundtrack scene, meanwhile, is stolen from ‘Lock, Stock…’ itself) further adding to one’s sense of disenchantment. No, ‘Layer Cake’ is a confection best avoided.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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