A successful cocaine dealer (Daniel Craig) wants to retire. Everyone seems to know this and wants him to help with one last project, errand or favor. Jimmy (Kenneth Cranham), his boss, wants him to help find the daughter of a rival, Eddie (Michael Gambon). The daughter has slipped into drugs and has gone missing. Gene (Colm Meaney) and his crew want his help with one last large order of E pills from Amsterdam. He also meets Sammy (Sienna Miller), the girlfriend of a rival, and falls in love. Of course, none of this is going to be as simple as all that.
"Layer Cake", the new British gangster film from director Matthew Vaughn, is the latest in a string of stylish films depicting gangsters and drug dealers produced by the same people who worked on "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Snatch".
Much like the earlier films by Guy Ritchie, "Layer Cake" has a sweeping visual style. I don't mean that the style is grand, but the camera moves a lot. The movements are very fluid and stylish and this helps to add a lot of visual panache to the film. Following the character played by Daniel Craig (who is not named in the film) as he walks towards a door, the camera may then pick up another character as they walk out of a door in another building. Or the camera may focus on a golf ball in one persons hand and the shot changes to a close-up on another character's eye.
A character might relate a story, as the camera pans across the room, moving across a doorway, into the room where the story is set. We then watch the images of the story, as the character describes them. Frequently, the camera continues moving out of the room and back into the room of the story teller. The transition is usually brief but effective. Watching the other events keeps things moving, but also keeps them interesting, because we are looking at a visual of the events being described, rather than just listening to a description.
Because of these transition elements, there are very few traditional `cuts' in the film, allowing the viewer to really lose themselves in the story. It is an effective way to bring us into this world. To help us believe that we are a part of the story and the action.
This is also the type of film where everyone has the same facial expression throughout. They're gangsters. They are supposed to be heartless bastards. Normally, this would drive me crazy, but in this film, it works. Craig's character is not quite the hardened criminal that he portrays. He is a normal guy, who happens to be very successful in his trade. One of the reasons he wants out of the business is that he can't handle the violence. He maintains a stony grimace because he has to. If he doesn't, he will be killed. The few times circumstances seem to be out of his control, he does reveal a little emotion. This helps make his character all the more real, and helps to make the lack of emotion in the remainder of the film seem all the more necessary. If they show emotion, they could get robbed, killed, or worse.
The story is nothing new. We have all seen dozens of films in which a criminal wants to retire. Everyone makes it more difficult for him than he wants. Every character wants something from every other character. Again, nothing new. But "Cake" takes this to a new extreme. As they say, the Devils in the details. As we watch the story unfold, it becomes more and more complicated. Every character wants something from someone else, but they are also working other angles and cons, double-crossing the people double-crossing them while working angles on third or fourth parties, who are probably double-crossing yet other people. Some may need a scorecard to keep all of the machinations straight. I'm not even sure I followed everything. Because there is so much going on, I was never bored.
"Layer Cake" is a stylish, interesting, involving film about people you would never want to meet on a street corner.