Imagine a modern version of “Little Caesar” crossed with “The Godfather III” but told in the whiplash style of Guy Ritchie (“Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”), and you’ll have some idea of what “Layer Cake” is like. We watch as a smooth mid-level drug-dealer (Daniel Craig), simply (and quite pointlessly) called XXXX in the credits, is drawn deeper and deeper into the seamy British underworld despite his intent to accumulate a suitable nest egg and get out of the business; he’s a clever fellow and rises near to the top, but not without dirtying his hands in the process, and nemesis nonetheless awaits.
XXXX is played by Daniel Craig, who brings a certain cool intensity to the role but doesn’t exhibit the charisma that would have made the character indelible (the way Edward G. Robinson’s Rico, for example, remains). When we meet him, he’s a mid-level distributor of cocaine for his surly, low-brow boss Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham). XXXX and his trusted associate Morty (George Harris) are given a couple of troublesome tasks by Price: to locate the runaway daughter of Jimmy’s old partner Eddie Temple (Michael Gambon), who’s disappeared into the drug demimonde, and to deal with a large shipment of coke, which they’re unaware was stolen by crazed Duke (Jamie Foreman) from an Amsterdam kingpin (Dragan Micanovic), who’s sent a notorious hit-man to retrieve the drugs and take revenge for their theft. There are other figures involved in the convoluted whirlwind of a plot too, most notably Price’s right-hand man, the brusquely efficient Gene (Colm Meaney), who joins forces with XXXX after Jimmy is killed.
It wouldn’t serve much purpose to try to disentangle the myriad strands of plot that J.H. Connolly has constructed from his own novel. Suffice it to say that there are double- and triple-crosses galore, many carefully-placed bursts of violence, numerous reversals of fortune, and twisty plans that go awry most of the time. What there isn’t a great deal of is femininity. Duke has an acidic moll named Slasher (Sally Hawkins), and there’s more refined blonde with whom XXXX intends to spend an evening (another plan that’s foiled), but otherwise the movie is pretty much a guy thing–and, it must be said, a fairly one-note affair despite Vaughn’s constant effort to disguise the fact by piling on the garishness, quick edits and virtuoso camera moves. The sad fact is that although the criminal society depicted here may have a lot of layers (as Temple explains to XXXX at one point), the script really doesn’t. (Twists aren’t layers, after all, just swirls; if you follow the titular analogy, this is a movie-cake with swirls, not layers.)
Of course, there’s a certain exhilaration to all the empty displays of energy on display here, but beneath the surface excitement nothing much is going on. If you really stretch things, you can read the story (like “Little Caesar”) as a cautionary tale about the seductive–and destructive–lure of the criminal lifestyle, but it seems more interested in glamorizing all the carnage than in deploring it. Still, the mood of brutal cynicism gives some of the actors the opportunity to have some real fun–most notably Gambon, who oozes oily malevolence, and Meany, who’s done this gruff, cunning bit before but is extremely good at it. The supporting cast does a fine job, too (although, to be honest, Foreman and Hawkins take their whacked-out characters to a point that seems excessive even in a movie as overwrought as this one). Craig, on the other hand, doesn’t have the charisma that would make the unnamed protagonist really memorable. He catches the fellow’s slickness and increasing desperation well enough, but the final degree of magnetism is lacking. The cinematography of Ben Davis and Jon Davis’ editing give the visuals the flash that the increasingly familiar genre demands.
Indeed, there’s a lot of glitzy style and gangster machismo on display in “Layer Cake,” but very little else. When you get right down to it, the movie is half-baked–astronomically high in cinematic calories but very low in nutritional value.