[Join your host, John Holliday, in the review column "A Movie A Week" as he shares his spoiler-free thoughts on our collection of DVD / Blu-ray titles.]
Before he was Bond, Daniel Craig was literally a no-name character in Michael Vaughn's directorial debut, Layer Cake. Credited only as XXXX, Craig plays an everyday businessman whose commodity "happens to be cocaine". He lives by a specific set of rules, set out in the opening narration, which are tested as he takes on one last job before retirement.
XXXX has earned his place as a well respected middle-man among his peers by not dealing in the drug business as a common gangster but as a professional. Every move he makes has been carefully thought out in advance so that he's in control at all times. He knows who he's dealing with and he does so promptly and with a low profile and without greed. But in the criminal underworld, moving on isn't as easy as giving your two weeks notice.
Jimmy Price, his superior, sends him to clean up after the sloppy street thugs that he's strictly avoided. They've screwed up a deal involving a million ecstasy pills but that's only part of the job as he must also find Jimmy's own boss' daughter. But XXXX has paid his dues and, having worked his way towards the top of the layer cake of life, he has a few resources to help him live out his motto, "Have a plan and stick to it. Quit while you're ahead." This kind of association with shady characters is the beginning of interweaving stories of half-truths and backstabbing in a world where everyone is only looking out for himself.
I read a lot of reviews so that I can guarantee I bring you something unique. It seems like the basis for judging Layer Cake has been Guy Ritchie's Snatch and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, probably because director Matthew Vaughn produced both. I don't think this is entirely accurate though outside of the hard to follow cockney accents and non-traditional gangster premise. The characters in those movies are in many ways the opposite of Daniel Craig's smooth, level headed character seen here. I didn't notice it until afterward but there's hardly even any gunplay and Craig makes it a point to mention that he doesn't like guns, much less two smoking barrels.
Layer Cake, instead, is in a class all its own. It's gritty and unpredictable yet suave and choreographed. Though it won't make complete sense until all the plotlines come together in the end, it's a very enjoyable movie. What may seem confusing and aimless at first makes for a clean and well rounded story with an ending that suits it perfectly. That's why I give Layer Cake:
"But I thought you liked the movie, why only a 4?" Let me put it this way: 'Casino Royale' is a 4.5 / 5, 'From Russia with Love' is a perfect 5 / 5.
Some controversy has surrounded the ending of Layer Cake as XXXX completes his mission and is heading off into early retirement with the girl when one of the small time underlings shoots him point blank in the chest. Normally, I wouldn't like this conclusion. The unhappy ending doesn't work as an alternate to True Romance but it makes sense under these circumstances. Why? In that movie, Clarence and Alabama were caught in a situation beyond their control that forced them to run for their lives. They had to temporarily get in the business so they could get away safely. They got out as soon as they could.
I think Daniel Craig worded it best during an interview when he pointed out that his character is a criminal and we should be reminded of that in the end. Though you're on his side throughout the movie, you're not really rooting for him to successfully distribute drugs even though that's the task at hand; you're wanting to see him make it out of the business which he ultimately accomplishes.
What movie would you like to see John review next week? Your suggestions are always welcome at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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