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Posts Tagged ‘Layer Cake’

I almost get the sense that 2020 is a moment the world got stuck in and can’t get out of: in some respects, at least. The much-feted reopening of cinemas doesn’t seem to amounted to very much at all, with Tenet only having made about $36 million at the US box office after several weeks of release, doubtless partly because cinemas are still closed in some major cities. (Yes, a paltry sum indeed – I should like to say, for the benefit of any moguls reading this, that if they would like to give me a lump sum, a mere 10% of Tenet‘s American take, I will happily never say a bad word about a James Corden-starring movie ever again. Everyone has their price, even if it’s a mere three and a half million dollars.)

As you’ve probably read, the studios have taken fright at this and suspended the release of any other substantial movies – the kind that the average cinema relies upon to earn its crust. People aren’t going to the cinema, so new films aren’t being released, so people aren’t going to the cinema even more. It’s hard to see where this will stop. The art house in Oxford closes again as of Friday, while the big commercial cinema is down to a three-day-week from the same point.

The bellwether in all of this certainly looks like the decision to postpone the release of No Time to Die from November this year until early spring of next. (I don’t believe in this notion of ‘cursed films’, but given all the travails this one has suffered, from losing Danny Boyle onwards, I’m almost inclined to declare an open mind where Bond 25 is concerned.) Eon have taken some stick for what unsympathetic commentators have decried as an act of cowardice, but I’m not sure I can bring myself to be quite so critical: the Bond movies are their main source of income, after all, and it’s in their interest to try to ensure both the films themselves and the manner in which they are released are as good as they can manage.

I’ve been musing on all things Bond-related recently, for a number of unconnected reasons, and this led me to (finally) watch Matthew Vaughn’s 2004 film Layer Cake, a film which has certainly ended up in the orbit of the Bond franchise, even if this wasn’t the intention at the time: back when it was new, everyone’s point of reference was Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and the plethora of mostly underwhelming knock-off lairy gangster movies it went on to spawn.

The title of the film, lest you be wondering, is a metaphor for the hierarchy of the criminal underworld, which is the milieu in which almost all of it takes place. Daniel Craig plays an ambitious young professional – his name is never revealed – whose industry of choice is the drugs trade. He is, very pointedly, not a gangster – he is a goal-oriented businessman, with a plan to make his money and then retire. It seems like he knows all the angles and has the firmest of grips on what’s happening around him.

(Not entirely surprisingly, the film seems to have no moral qualms about depicting drug dealers, and indeed narcotics themselves, in a moderately sympathetic light – one of the few times Craig sounds morally outraged is when musing on the fact that, if convicted, he’d do more time inside than a rapist, the implication being that drug pushing is a trivial offence compared to sexual assault. Hmmm, well. It certainly seems of a piece with the non-judgemental view of drug users from the second Kingsman film, also directed by Vaughn.)

All this changes for the Craig character, however, when senior gangster Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham) puts the brakes on his plans to retire – at least until he’s done a couple of jobs for him. One of them is finding the errant young daughter of Eddie Temple (Michael Gambon), another businessman with a portfolio which is not 100% legal, the other is handling the disposition of a huge quantity of Ecstasy which a gang of small time criminals – these guys are basically idiots – have nicked from a gang of Serbians.

Craig protests it’s not really in his line, but Price is insistent: things proceed to get worse and worse. It turns out there is more to the missing young woman than initially meets the eye: murky gangland politics are involved. It turns out that the Serbians, meanwhile, think Craig is responsible for the theft of their drugs – due to one of the gang of idiots shooting his mouth off – and have dispatched an assassin noted for the savagery of his methods to retrieve them. It’s almost enough to make a serious-minded professional contemplate violence…

I must confess to a bit of a dislike of the laddish gangster movie as inaugurated by Guy Ritchie, even though I’ve only seen one of Ritchie’s movies which qualifies as such – 2005’s baffling Revolver. It’s probably because of my exposure to all those knock-offs, some of which I have had the misfortune to see: 51st State, Love, Honour and Obey, and Rancid Aluminium (supposedly the worst film ever made in the UK: given this list necessarily includes titles like Sex Lives of the Potato Men and Peter Rabbit, the mind boggles as it has seldom done before).

I suppose my dislike really stems from that very laddishness of the films – a sort of crass hetero-normativity, coupled to amorality and the idea that violence and criminality is inherently funny. One point in Layer Cake‘s favour is that much of this is dialled down to the extent that it is simply background noise – although it almost goes without saying that this is still a very blokey film: Sienna Miller plays Craig’s love interest, and is almost wholly decorative, while Sally Hawkins plays ‘Slasher’, one of the gang of idiots. Nevertheless, the film does handle its subject matter and the consequences (mostly) thoughtfully – the nature of the drugs trade isn’t dwelt upon, but at one point Craig realises that the only way to avoid a lengthy prison term and the loss of all he’s acquired is to kill a man in cold blood, and the corrosive effect of this, and its aftermath, are considered and depicted at some length.

There’s something very familiar about this bit, in particular, especially nowadays: the dead, icy look appearing in Craig’s eyes as he accepts he has crossed a line and can never go back. If Layer Cake is remembered for one thing, it’s as the film that swung Craig the role of Bond, and you can see why – he looks good, handles the violence and the womanising equally well, and also can clearly bring the extra level of humanity to the part that Eon were looking for at the time. Yet it is a different character, less of a rogue than Bond, more cerebral – to begin with at least. (Interest for Bond-followers in the film may be added by the presence of Michael Gambon, who turned down the role in 1971, not to mention Craig’s several scenes with Ben Whishaw, while we can only hope that the presence of a young Tom Hardy in a small role is a portent of future pub-quiz questions to come.)

Craig is very good as a man who’s forced to get his hands dirty and come to terms with the fact that, when it comes to criminal politics, being the smartest man in the room isn’t always enough to get results. This is the script’s main thesis, which it puts across well enough – though a lot of it is the usual gangster nonsense, presented fairly stylishly. The rest of the performances are also rather good – Colm Meaney is also in the gang, as is George Harris, while Gambon is genuinely frightening as the senior man on the scene.

In the end I would say this was a good film rather than a truly great one – good performances and ideas are not quite elaborated upon enough in the script, and it does still fall into a few of the typical post-Ritchie potholes. Nevertheless, this is a superior, tough thriller, which deserves to be remembered on its own merits rather than as an extended audition piece for its star’s most famous job.

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