As a culture of movie goers, I think we may have finally reached a point where we can declare movies about drug dealers and/or drug users set in the UK as their own sub-genre. This includes films directed by Guy Ritchie as well as others he may only have watched. And, of course, there’s Layer Cake.
Based on the book by J.J. Connolly, and adapted for the screen by Connolly himself, Layer Cake is the story of a drug dealer played by Daniel “James Bond” Craig and his various associates as they try to forge a life in the British criminal underworld. Tom “Bane” Hardy plays his chemist and Colm “Miles O’Brien” Meaney plays the second in command to Craig’s boss, both quite effectively. Often credited as the performance that landed Craig the role of James Bond, Layer Cake was also the directorial debut of Matthew Vaughn. He collaborated with Guy Ritchie on his early films as well as directing Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class and potentially one of the new Star Wars films.
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What makes this movie interesting to watch is best exemplified by its title. In a narrative sense, this movie is an examination of the multiple layers built into British underworld. Everyone has a boss they answer to and underlings they, in turn, boss around. Even Craig’s boss has a boss. Even the junkies have someone they control. While there is a certain amount of this in all drug movies, few show the stratification inside this world so eloquently.
Beyond that, Layer Cake also refers to the multi-leveled plot that exists in this movie. Watching Craig’s character, who is never given a name and is called XXXX in the credits, play each social level in the drug dealing world against the other to get ahead in the game is where the narrative push comes from. And it is brilliantly executed.
Craig’s character is the drug dealer you root for as he actively tries to get out of the game but is thwarted at every turn by circumstance, the idiocy of those around him and his own tunnel-vision for his end goal. It can be hard to go back to an old film from an actor like Craig once he has portrayed an iconic character like James Bond but his performance as XXXX transcends that. There are moments where the viewer gets a hint of what is to come in his career, as well as Vaughn’s, but you are definitely not watching James Bond in action.
As you watch Layer Cake, you find yourself hoping XXXX keeps it together and makes it out of the life he has forged for himself despite his relative success in it. You also find yourself wondering what the character’s name is, a gauntlet thrown down by XXXX in the dying moments of the film. It’s an engaging crime thriller well worth watching on a frozen Prairie evening.
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