Layer Cake

(2005) *** R
107 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Matthew Vaughn. Cast: Daniel Craig, Michael Gambon, Colm Meaney, Kenneth Cranham, Jamie Foreman.

Matthew Vaughn spent years producing Guy Ritchie's crime-caper comedies, so one might expect more of the same from Vaughn's directorial debut. Happily, that's not the case with Layer Cake, an accomplished adaptation of J.J. Connolly's novel that capitalizes on another distinguished leading perfomance by Daniel Craig (The Mother).

Connolly wrote the screenplay, and his sharp narration effectively establishes Craig's character, a drug dealer who proves that discipline is not enough to stay out of trouble ("Have a plan—stick to it"). The nameless dealer sees the drug underworld like any ruthless big business (and, in a dream-like reverie, foresees its eventual legal commodification as fcuk-brand cocaine and ecstasy), except that the stakes of failure run to murder.

The Craig character's plan to get out while the getting is good and adopt a legit lifestyle turns out to be even trickier than he imagined. His skills and discipline as a middleman between drug bosses, suppliers, and street pushers remain highly prized. Michael Gambon plays a top boss who chats amiably about taking in a performance of Faust before assuring Craig, "You're not getting out; you're getting in. You're only getting started..." Gambon also schools him about the "layer cake," another metaphor for the corporate ladder of the illegal sweets biz.

Vaughn's relative maturity outclasses Ritchie (though Ritchie stalwart Jason Flemyng pops up in an uncredited cameo as "Crazy Larry"), and his action chops ain't bad either, proved by a chase and escape through a drug warehouse and onto a motor-raft (up next for Vaughn: X3). Pleasingly plot-heavy, Layer Cake always pulls itself up by its bootstraps whenever its energy threatens to flag: a sudden influx of violence here, a zesty supporting turn by Gambon there, and before you know it, you've got a respectable genre film with a touch of Danny Boyle-esque pizazz.

[For Groucho's interview with star Daniel Craig, click here, and for Groucho's interview with director Matthew Vaughn, click here.]

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