With a vast amount of money safely invested, a London cocaine peddler (Daniel Craig) is preparing to leave England and start a new life. However, his gangland protector, Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham), has other plans
When Lock, Stock producer Matthew Vaughn announced his directing debut, there were few cheers in the Empire office. Drugs? Check. Dodgy geezers? Check. London crime syndicate? Check. Whatever he cared to call it, Vaughn's Layer Cake sounded uncomfortably like it belonged to the worst of all genres: Yet Another British Gangster Movie.
But something didn't sit right. If that really were the case, what would an actor like Daniel Craig be doing in it? Since breaking out in 1998's Love Is The Devil as Francis Bacon's bit-of-rough lover, Craig has proven himself one of our most talented and versatile actors. And it's good to report that his faith in Layer Cake has paid off handsomely; under Vaughn's unfussy direction, Craig's nameless dealer is the focus of this often gripping film, an engaging and all-too-human presence after the cartoon archetypes of Lock, Stock and Snatch.
This is, above all, a movie about mood. Where sometime partner Guy Ritchie might dip into Scorsese's bag of tricks and crank up the volume, Vaughn looks to Michael Mann for inspiration. Lisa Gerrard's captivating score illustrates this thinking most explicitly, but it's perhaps more evident in the cinematography.
Looking out over the city and the square mile around its neongherkin, Vaughn's directorial debut captures London's essence but doesn't Americanise it. This is the first time in a while that we've seen London as it is - an affluent European capital, not a concrete shrine to bad town planning.
The story, too, is less conventional than it might seem. At first glance, it's the classic one-last-heist scenario, but Craig's character is not drawn into the game by greed or anything so shallow. The reality is closer to Paul Schrader''s American Gigolo or, more pertinently, Light Sleeper, both films in which the protagonist is swallowed up by a plot that unfolds around him, slowly and methodically blocking off the exits.
There are, of course, some flaws, and they mostly arrive at the end, as several storylines conclude one after another, undermining some of Craig's good work and posing more questions than answers. Still, this is a real surprise that stands head and shoulders above most other British films you'll see this year.
Fans of Lock, Stock may be surprised by the intensity of this thoughtful thriller, which gives Daniel Craig the star-making role he deserves.