|Written by Darren Gross|
|Sunday, 01 July 2007|
An unnamed (the credits refer to him as “XXXX”) small-time drug manufacturer (Daniel Craig) lives a professional, upper-middle class existence, building up a nest egg for retirement, while treading in the world of hardened professional criminals. As XXXX abhors violence, he tries to stay far away from unprofessional criminals and situations that produce too much risk. Unfortunately his little controlled empire turns to chaos when he is instructed to broker a deal for one million Ecstasy pills, which, unbeknownst to XXXX, were stolen from a vengeful Serbian drug lord. Adding to the confusion is the request by gangster Jimmy (Kenneth Cranham) for XXXX to track down the errant daughter of big-time gangster Eddie Temple (Michael Gambon). As XXXX tries to navigate between the various factions, he becomes tangled in double and triple-crosses, bungled plans, and sudden outbursts of violence.
Matthew Vaughn makes his directorial debut with “Layer Cake,” having previously produced “Snatch” and “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.” It’s a fairly effective debut, and certainly an ambitious choice. The film is jammed with characters and plotlines, and one can imagine the Herculean efforts that must have been made to make the film coherent. It’s not the film I would have chosen as a debut project, because the clearer you make the material, the more schematic and self-consciously clever the film seems—but to do otherwise would make the story raggedy and awkward. It’s nearly a no-win situation. Vaughn emerges from process with a fairly straightforward film, but too many side-roads and confusing twists prevent it from fully gelling.
“Layer Cake” has a very clean visual style that belies its extremely low budget (4 million pounds). Vaughn chose his settings with an eye to the richness of background buildings, offering a prevalence of wide-screen. frame-filling cityscapes. By taking advantage of London’s natural opulence and varied architecture, he’s made the film seem a much grander affair. As Vaughn admits on the commentary track, he was inspired by Michael Mann’s “Heat,” particularly in the way flattened, hideous Los Angeles is visualized with gorgeous light-filled nightscapes. Vaughn wanted to make the naturally beautiful London look just as rich in his film. His comment also explains the presence of Lisa Gerrard on the soundtrack, whose beautifully mournful stylings are peppered throughout the film. Tonally, Gerrard’s somber songs are evocative, but don’t quite match the snappy nature of the film. They’re lovely, but seem an odd choice to accompany this tale and the scene where they would work most effectively uses a pop song instead.
Overall the film elicits strong feelings of déjà vu. There’s not much new ground being broken here and the narrative, overstuffed with characters, incidents, reversals, double and triple crosses, is well worn and lacking in freshness. The shadow of Mike Hodges’s “Get Carter” (1971) looms heavily over this film (as it does over the lion’s share of British crime films made since.) There are some fun moments to be had: the opening with “Fcuk” brand-name cocaine, LSD and other drugs is a striking, memorable image, and was quite a bold move for the brand to allow it. The owner of the company is one of the executive producers, but it’s a ballsy move regardless. Sienna Miller is the attractive eye-candy the role requires, but it’s a nothing character, undeveloped, present only to serve a function in the story and to diffuse the testosterone on display. The film is elevated by a charismatic performance from Daniel Craig, who in attitude and in shot composition, seems to be unconsciously auditioning for the role of James Bond. The film is also given some juice thanks to the entertaining interplay between Craig, Colm Meaney and George Harris (Katanga from “Raiders of the Lost Ark”), who develop a nice sense of blackly comic camaraderie late in the film that never strays too far into wannabe Quentin Tarantino territory. The cast is abetted by familiar character actors, who all deliver fine performances: Michael Gambon, Kenneth Cranham, Burn Gorman, Jamie Forman, and Jason Flemying. While derivative overall, the movie presents a few surprises, some well-orchestrated shocks, and a few interestingly staged violent beatings.
The Blu-ray disc is bright and colorful, sharply conveying the bright tones of the photography. The transfer is presented in the film’s original 2.40 aspect ratio, and the extra level of detail gives some of the sweeping wide shots and geometrically designed interiors (such as the greenhouse and clean box-filled warehouse) and extra level of crispness, that draws a viewers attention to the details. The tracking shot near the beginning, moving across all the Fcuk drug boxes tends to flicker, making the labels a little hard to read, but this may be less visible on 1080p display. Close-ups are particularly pleasing and often make Daniel Craig’s blue eyes appear almost luminous. There’s some mild grain visible at times, but this seems related to the original source material and any digital tweaking that may have been used during the production chain.
The uncompressed 5.1 PCM track included here is vibrant, crisp and full of weight and punch when called for. The mix is balanced a bit on the loud side. The dialogue is a little low, comparatively, and the level the volume needs to be set to for the dialogue to be comfortable renders the music and sound effects a tad on the hot side. There are a few sound effects that are meant to be shocking and those instances are presented here with substantial startling impact. A few near-miss gunshots have an almost tangible presence.
The extras package is appreciably substantial, with the “Q & A with the Director and Daniel Craig” being the most enjoyable and interesting—it’s a solid and worthwhile twenty-five minutes, though be warned there are spoilers for the film “The Long Good Friday.” Over twenty minutes of unimpressive deleted scenes are included, of which the two alternate endings are the most interesting. The feature commentary track with director Vaughn and writer J.J. Connolly relates all the expected behind-the-scenes stories, but the lack of energy in their voices makes the track a bit dull. The optional director’s commentary over the deleted scenes doesn’t add much more than one can already discern simply from watching them.