January 15, 2006
Starring: Starring: Daniel Craig, Tom Hardy, Jamie Foreman, Sally Hawkins, Burn Gorman, George Harris, Tamer Hassan, Colm Meaney, Michael Gambon, Marcel Iures, Francis Magee, Sienna Miller, Kenneth Cranham, ,
After the dissolution of his partnership with Guy Ritchie (reportedly over the Swept Away remake debacle), producer Matthew Vaughn set out to continue what he and Ritchie had set out to do: make modest yet clever British gangster films with colourful characters, flashy style and an eclectic soundtrack (this one includes The Cult, Duran Duran, New Order and the obligatory Rolling Stones track). Yet, he has wisely tried not to imitate Ritchie but make this film its own thing.
Mr. X (Craig) is a cocaine dealer with his own rigid set of rules and is smart enough to avoid getting busted because he surrounds himself with savvy people. That means picking the right customers and giving the boss, Jimmy Price (Cranham), his proper cut of the profits. X’s credo is “Have a plan and stick to it. Quit while you’re ahead.” That is why he plans to retire. But of course it isn’t going to be that easy (it never is). Jimmy asks X for one last favour: find the missing daughter of a friend of his who’s also addicted to coke and negotiate the sale of one million hits of Ecstasy from the Duke (Foreman), the proverbial loose cannon. It turns out that the Duke stole the ecstasy from some nasty Serbian gangsters who want their drugs back and has dispatched their ace enforcer to cut the head off of the person responsible.
Pretty soon bodies start piling up (as they do in these kinds of movies) and things get complicated but never confusing as Vaughn expertly navigates us through the narrative jungle. It soon becomes a game of who’s double-crossing whom with X trying desperately to stay ahead of everyone if he has a chance of surviving and keep the audience guessing. Part of the joy of watching Layer Cake is anticipating the next plot twist, the next revelation and the next piece of the puzzle that sheds a little more light on the big picture.
Vaughn opts for more straightforward direction, authenticity and a linear narrative instead of Ritchie’s frenetic, Tarantino-esque editing and over-the-top style. Unlike Ritchie, Vaughn hasn’t become big enough to populate his film with big time Hollywood movie stars (a la Snatch) and keeps it a home-grown affair with a who’s who of British character actors: Daniel Craig, Colm Meaney, Dexter Fletcher and Michael Gambon. They give the film an additional authenticity.
Stylistically, Vaughn is indebted to the films of Michael Mann in the way he frames X, often framed alone, and dwarfed by his surroundings. X is also the consummate professional, like Mann’s protagonists. But perhaps most tellingly, Vaughn uses his widescreen aspect ratio and music to reflect the mood of his protagonist. There is also an attention to architecture. He makes London look beautiful like Mann did for Los Angeles. Layer Cake is a well-made movie that showcases Vaughn’s successful transition from producer to director and his triumphant emergence out from under Ritchie’s shadow.
There is an audio commentary by Matthew Vaughn and writer J.J. Connolly (who also wrote the book the movie is based on). Vaughn did not want to repeat what had been done in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000) and had the voiceover narration rewritten many times with Craig not too keen on saying it. Connolly made sure that all the drug transactions were depicted authentically. The two men deliver a fine, low-key track talking about the changes made to the script, where scenes were shot and so on.
Also included are 14 deleted scenes and two alternate endings with optional commentary by Vaughn and Connolly. This excised footage feature extra bits of plot, mostly backstory that wasn’t really necessary and so it was cut. The alternate endings are more hopeful and also more ambiguous than the actual downbeat ending.
There are “Storyboard Comparisons” for two scenes that allow one to watch the storyboards and the finished product simultaneously.
“Q&A Screening with Matthew Vaughn and Daniel Craig” is an entertaining and informative featurette recorded at the National Film Theatre in London on September 2004. Vaughn talks about the challenge of moving from producing to directing while Craig wanted to make his character as anonymous as possible so that he could fit into any layer of society. Vaughn cut out a lot of the humour because he didn’t want to make another Guy Ritchie movie.
“The Making of Layer Cake” is a promotional featurette with lots of clips from the movie with soundbites from Vaughn and some of the key cast members.
Finally, there is the memorable “Poster Explorations,” that showcase various designs for the movie, many look quite good and it’s a shame they weren’t used.