Gangsters never truly retire, not in films anyway. Arrested? Absolutely. Killed? Most certainly. But retire? Not a chance. Goodfellas would be a different film had Henry Hill announced a successful and peaceful retirement. Grit and determination were needed for his rise up and out of the mafia lifestyle. The same goes for British crime. Guy Ritchie features do not end with “and then he retired to a life in Malia,” as Snatch would feel rather different had it done so. Even those that retire, like Ray Winstone’s Gary Dove in Sexy Beast, after retiring, is pulled right back in. Presumably, the case would be the same for Layer Cake’s protagonist, a pre-Bond Daniel Craig, as an unnamed cocaine dealer trying to get out in one piece.
“If you seek peace, you plan for war,” a wise man once said. Unclear who that may be, this quote can now be attributed to Craig and his description of getting involved with the dealing of drugs. He is the narrator that burrows into the minds of the audience with little choice elsewhere. It is a love or hate dynamic for Craig’s unnamed man. Simply known as XXXX, there is a desire explained and explored by Craig to leave the drug-fuelled lifestyle behind forever. He is as clean-cut as they come except for selling it. Cynical some of the dialogue may be, it is hard to not engage with the thoughts on display. Drugs as an illegal commodity soon spiralling into legality and profit for businesses, rather than back-alley gangsters is an interesting angle that is explained briefly within Layer Cake.
Brevity is the key to this feature. It never lingers all that long on one topic or skill, just a core need to feature drugs, tension and effortless ensemble dynamics in any and all scenes. The hardman London gangster is presented once more, and without much love for the cockney dialect, those with working ears will enjoy seeing bad men meet with bad situations. Craig is cool and collected in these moments. No wonder he was chosen as the next Bond star. Those principles of character that are founded in the 00-brand are nowhere to be found here, but the intense physicality and calm exterior are, and they make his performance a clear highlight.
A rather telling and sudden commentary on the drug industry and the inevitable commercialisation of it. How far off from that future is Craig’s mysteriously unnamed character? Vaughn directs this drug-based feature with surprising clarity and confidence. There is a tact to his dingy characters and their need to sell drugs. He balances the line between scrutinising those that sell it and figuring out why they bother when the stakes are so high. With an ensemble of future stars at his fingertips, Layer Cake is an easy sell to those that wish to find a colourful, interesting and superior gangster piece to Snatch or the later works of Ritchie. What Vaughn provides is an excellent ensemble with one man looking for a way out of it all, and that is more than enough for an audience to give him some leniency, some emotional hook into their heart. It works quite successfully when such a man is Daniel Craig.