Layer Cake is a 2004 British crime film starring Daniel Craig, Colm Meaney, George Harris and a whole host of other actors, many of whom have gone onto bigger things since its release (Tom Hardy, Ben Whishaw and Burn Gorman being the most notable examples of this). Matthew Vaughn, a man who many will know from Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class and most recently Kingsman: The Secret Service directed the film, and it shares many of their/his stylistic qualities. So why is Layer Cake great?
Firstly, it has a great plot. Indeed Layer Cake has more than one, but all are given enough screen time, and enough screen time of actual significance for the viewer to be interested and engaged with these. Without wishing to spoil any of these strands, by the third act they have all found their way around our protagonist (Daniel Craig), in a couple of brilliant “Oh, that’s clever” moments that twist and turn the plot just enough for it to increase the intensity of the action, but not enough to seem silly or out of place. The plot isn’t over the top in terms of the stakes being ridiculously high either – it isn’t a save-the-world deal here. Instead the story revolves around a successful drug dealer (Craig) who has plans for a life after crime up against a world of unfortunate events and people that could mean otherwise, though it evolves into something much better than this. Crucially, you do care about this unnamed protagonist – whilst he is an anti-hero he is also a sympathetic character, and Craig carries it off with enough Bond-like charm to succeed, giving us a little preview of what would be in store for audiences two years later in Casino Royale.
The writing and acting also matches the plot’s sharpness and excellent direction. George Harris is both hilarious and terrifying as Morty – a British version of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas perhaps, though nowhere near as brutal. Ben Whishaw, still a painfully underrated actor (I will jump at literally any excuse to talk about how great an actor he is) gives an unexpected but brilliant performance as an annoying relative of an already annoying character – much like his other roles, it’s not something you’ll have seen him tackle before, but clearly he’s an actor who’s refusing to be typecast, and if things stay the same hopefully he’ll soon have a back-catalogue as diverse as say, Gary Oldman. In a few years, perhaps! Regardless, there is no clear ‘weak’ actor in the film, and what with the slick writing and smooth directorial style that Vaughn does so well, you’re not at all pulled out of the film, but at the same time, you’re incredibly aware that you’re watching one, and this mix works.
Layer Cake also has an excellent look and feel, one that blends the highs and lows of a life of crime in London seamlessly, and this fluxes with the plot – in fact all of the scenes with Sienna Miller demonstrate this excellently; her first introduction in the club and later in the hotel, for example. Much is added to this style from its stellar soundtrack; there’s an excellent blend of classics, electronic and 90s and early 2000s dance tracks, as well as The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter thrown in there for good measure, which is never a bad thing.
Essentially, if you liked some of the other more high-profile British crime thrillers of the early 2000s, or just crime films and thrillers in general, you’ll like Layer Cake. It’s similar enough to these for audiences to be familiar with what’s to be generally expected in it, whilst also carving out its own distinct style and plot. It likes to keep the audience guessing as to whether it will stick to convention or not, and whether it does or not, it’s enjoyable when it’s doing either, and brilliant when it does both.
By Oliver Rowe