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Let Them Eat 'Cake'

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 27, 2005

IN "LAYER Cake," a smooth, good-looking businessman (Daniel Craig) from London thinks he's got the perfect scheme. A rental agent by day and a cocaine and ecstasy manufacturer by night, he believes he can make the illegal drug trade work for him and not the other way around. As Matthew Vaughn's brilliantly mounted film opens, he has reached the point where he's made enough to retire, say goodbye to all those scuzzy associates and start a new life. But our yuppie antihero -- who's referred to only as X -- finds out he chose the wrong industry to use for his own gain.

In this layer-cake subsociety, as X's middleman Gene (Colm Meaney) makes clear, everyone's too connected to just slip away. It seems Gene's immediate boss, Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham), needs one last unpleasant favor from X, which means associating with the hoods and gangsters the drug maker has methodically avoided. Jimmy doesn't take "no thanks" for an answer. Above Jimmy, in this metaphorical layer cake, lurks Eddie Temple (Michael Gambon), an even more dangerous player who's pursuing his own Machiavellian agenda. Of course, he needs X's valuable participation.

As if these two conflicting bullies weren't intimidating enough, X runs into the mentally unhinged Duke (Jamie Foreman), a sort of cockney Scarface who wants to build his own ecstasy empire, no matter whom he has to kill or steal from, and a chilly Serbian bounty hunter -- the minion of yet another crime lord -- whose mission of vengeance and drug retrieval demands X's involuntary assistance. Retirement? Not bloody likely. X has his life to worry about first. And as for the blond siren (Sienna Miller) he just fell in love with, she'll have to wait.

Vaughn produced such Guy Ritchie movies as "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels." (See Film Notes on Page 42.) But "Layer Cake" is not cartoonish like Ritchie's black-humor capers. It's a stylish and classic gangster saga about the clashing of rival empires, where the only thing worse than the killer before you is the killer waiting behind him. There's no escape in this world, only moments of personal courage, grace and luck. Ultimately, X realizes, luck is the most precious element of all. As X, Craig is a compelling presence -- a brilliant, slick opportunist who is rapidly learning that drug dealing, murder, treachery and blackmail are simply occupational hazards in this world. The principal sin is yuppie arrogance. And he's going to be a very lucky man indeed to get out of this thing alive.

LAYER CAKE (R, 104 minutes) -- Contains graphic violence, obscenity and sexual scenes. Area theaters.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company