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Despite being a humble little British gangster film from the early noughties, Layer Cake sits in the oddly prestigious position of being ground zero for two different spy franchises of the present. Most obviously, this film is considered Daniel Craig’s audition tape for Bond with the producers having directly cited it. But it’s also the directorial debut of one Matthew Vaughn, the man that would go on to revitalise the X-Men franchise with First Class, give the world it’s proto-Deadpool with the R-rated Kick-Ass and of course introduce (or inflict, depending on your views) the Kingsman franchise to the world, of which he has now personally shepherded three entries and counting.
Originally a producer first and foremost – often on Guy Ritchie films – it is easy to see how Layer Cake looked like a viable venture to Vaughn but even easier to see how this could have fit into Ritchie’s oeuvre. The dark humour, the highly class-based variety of gangster types and crooked cops, the violence; all present and accounted for. But under Vaughn’s direction there is a much firmer commitment to character and believability over the R-Rated Looney Toons approach of Ritchie.
Speaking of character, the cast is one of the more striking things about this in hindsight. You need only look at Vaughn’s subsequent films to see that he has a habit of casting people who immediately after working with him exploded to mega stardom (Chloe Grace Moretz, Aaron Taylor Johnson, Taron Egerton etc). and it was no different here. Obviously there’s Daniel Craig; playing his protagonist here in almost exactly the same way as he’d go on to play his interpretation of Bond. It’s easy to see why this impressed the Bond people so much given their instruction was clearly “do that again but in a tuxedo”. (That his character’s house number is “7” is an amusing little bit of serendipity.)
However there’s a few weirder inclusions. The two most obvious faces are that of Tom Hardy and Ben Whishaw, each amusingly playing against type in roles that seem tailor made for the other; Hardy as the posh, soft-spoken assistant in Craig’s well-oiled drug machine, while Whishaw plays a loud, obnoxious gangster-wannabe complete with strong accent and garish aesthetic. It’s difficult to picture either in such roles now and it speaks to Vaughn’s direction that they’re both well utilised and believable. But if you want a real mind fuck you need look no further than an utterly unrecognisable Sally Hawkins.
The basis for Vaughn’s arguably trademark overt styling and hyper-kinetic editing style can be clearly seen throughout but in a far more restrained manner than what would come later. The camera is rarely still and the edits frequent but it’s often in the form of slow pans/zooms and deliberate cuts with a solid rhythm rather than just constant quick cutting. Similarly while the intense violence that’s a staple of films like Kick-Ass or Kingsman is here, it’s – likely due to budget – often implied rather than shown and much more effective because of it.
The constraints – and the restraint they caused – make this probably Vaughn’s most effective film. The intensity and tension which marks almost all his films is far more subtle and consistent in its effectiveness, while the dark comedy sprinkled throughout doesn’t feel jarring alongside it. There are some delightfully deadpan codas to most of the film’s most shocking and brutal sequences, all of which land perfectly without stopping the flow of proceedings the way more operatic examples of such scenes do in later films. The world never breaks its sense of believability to wink to the audience and the film and its characters are infinitely more compelling for it.
Aiding this is the unusual mood the film operates under thanks to its soundtrack. The usual selection of well-chosen licenced tracks makes up the bulk of it – including a fantastic use of the piece ‘Ruthless Gravity’ during a wordless murder; a piece now almost entirely ruined by its over use in shows like the X-Factor to lend false gravitas to their proceedings, here used properly – however, it is the original score which really stands out. Composed by Lisa Gerrard and Ilan Eshkeri, it ranges from more traditional orchestra pieces to vaguely unsettling and near transcendent choral pieces that feel truly strange to hear in this particular genre.
As a film it’s aged impressively well. While it feels modern, it has little to firmly set it in a particular era and consequently doesn’t feel particularly dated now. Vaughn’s slightly overwrought stylishness is at its most subtle and effective. His use of in-shot transitions to move the story ahead in time combine with the other elements like the score and humour to give it a great sense of flow and no scene in it feels wasted. Everyone’s thoroughly confidant performances make this feel like a late career best-of rather than an amusingly early glimpse at future power-house actors.
The overall quality of this film does make one a little sad for the “what if” it inevitably makes you consider in hindsight, especially in regards to Craig. He demonstrates here how good of a character actor he could have emerged as in lower budget/more mid-range productions had he not been handcuffed to a Walter PPK for life.
This is at its clearest in any of the scenes he shares with Colm Meaney; bouncing off each other in a frequently tense but consistently darkly comic buddy-cop routine. It’s such a baffling-sounding pairing on paper now, yet one of the film’s absolute highlights. Ditto any scenes with Michael Gambon’s delightfully vile and ridiculous crime boss Temple or George Harris’ Morty. There’s no doubting Craig’s ability as a leading man but Bond has likely undone his value as a “mere” ensemble cast member where he was maybe most perfectly suited to be.
Vaughn has a habit of attracting – sometimes fairly – a lot of criticism for what he includes in his films and his attitude when he ends up needing to defend said inclusions after the fact. If any film is going to convince you of his merits as a director, it is likely this one has the best chance. While it’s still fun to see what he does in his modern comfort zone of hyper-violent comic book sandboxes, it’s nice to be reminded that there’s an incredibly solid drama director lurking at his core just waiting to make you laugh after a tense confrontation between James Bond and Chief O’Brien.