'Layer Cake': A Tasty Treat Given Some Bite by Its Star

Colm Meaney, from left, George Harris and Daniel Craig negotiate London's drug underworld in Matthew Vaughn's high-octane British thriller
Colm Meaney, from left, George Harris and Daniel Craig negotiate London's drug underworld in Matthew Vaughn's high-octane British thriller "Layer Cake." (By Daniel Smith -- Sony Pictures Classics)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 27, 2005

The great poet Archibald MacLeish wrote in "Ars Poetica," "A poem should not mean / But be." But that's also true of another art form, which is called "cool."

Cool should not mean, but be; it should be palpable, mute, silent, wordless (all MacLeish observations). It should leave, as the moon behind the winter leaves, memory. (MacLeish again.) And that pretty much describes the British actor Daniel Craig in the slick, violent, fabulous Brit crime film "Layer Cake."

Craig has been around for a few years, waiting to happen. He was the working-class lover of a seventy-something granny in "The Mother" and the put-upon philosopher stalked by a misbegotten weirdo in "Enduring Love." He was even Angelina Jolie's love interest in "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," but nobody noticed him because they were looking at them. What he needed was a showy role, and he's finally gotten it. In "Layer Cake," so named for the density of conspiracy, he's a very capable London drug dealer (you have to put moral moorings behind; you're in the land of noir), now preparing for early retirement. He's a businessman primarily, who understands the market principles behind his enterprise, knows the disciplines mandatory to survival, is quick, smart, stylish and nonviolent.

Anyway, he's about to have a very bad day.

He's about to learn that, far from being the king of a small, orderly world, he's a pawn in a bigger, messier one, expendable and forgettable, where informed armies clash by night.

But the two men with ambitions to use and dispose of him forget one thing: He's cool.

God, is he cool. Craig, who was once talked about as the next James Bond, is blond, blue-eyed and moves with a cat's grace. He is the next Steve McQueen, or as close to it as we're likely to get in benighted times when boys with mousse and goatees are presented as "stars." He has McQueen's quiet way of dominating without bullying. He's also handsome in a rugged way, thin, strong, and I'm sure many women will notice -- it was pointed out to me by one of them -- that he has an arse poetica.

As director Matthew Vaughn proceeds, the clever Craig (I will call him that because his character is never given a formal name) is summoned before Jimmy Price, a protean crime lord played in full-blooming cockney vulgarity by Kenneth Cranham. The joke is that this guy has become so rich and powerful he's infiltrated the upper class. Even though he remains crude and profane, he holds court in an elegant country club (a toff's former estate), and all the aristos suck up to him. There, in what used to be Lord Toadley-Vickers's hall, Jimmy requires Craig to do two favors: negotiate a drug sale of stolen ecstasy pills for a friend of his, and find the daughter of yet another friend of Jimmy's, another big gangster (played by the great Michael Gambon), who has gone off on a crack bender with a low-life dealer.

Initially, Craig believes in the justice of the universe and understands that these favors must be performed as the price of leaving the business, even if they're not really his part of the business, which involved importation, packaging, distribution to wholesale outlets, in a room hidden behind a real-estate brokerage. But -- this is a thriller, so don't be surprised -- All Is Not as It Seems.

I won't sum up the plot, not to spare readers twists but because I really couldn't follow it that well. Take on faith that it passes elementary logic tests. After all, a thriller should not mean, but be cool. Still, the accents, the argot and the quick shifts of time and space, as well as the frequent flashbacks to an age when all the big shots were young and had complex relations with each other, do interfere with a Yank's passage through the movie.

Still, what I got was invigorating, an exercise in high style, high octane and low-key suaveness. The director Vaughn has a flair not merely for action and ambiance but also for character. Craig's boys are quickly established, including the Irish actor Colm Meaney and the Barbadian actor George Harris. The fellows, under Craig's deft guidance, negotiate London's drug underworld smoothly and deal with the complications, such as the arrival of a very competent Serbian hit man to recover the stolen drugs, the intercession of that even bigger gangster, who, as it turns out, is less interested in his daughter than in Jimmy Price's plans, the arrival of a beautiful woman, a connection to African politics.

Vaughn, by the way, is the producer of and evidently the inheritor to the last big thing in British crime movies, the work of Mr. Madonna, Guy Ritchie, who did "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Snatch." Yet I would say he is a better director than Ritchie, because he's more conservative, more committed to the story and the characters: He's not into showy visual pyrotechnics and flashy editing sequences like Ritchie. When he delivers, he delivers big, and though the set pieces are dramatic, it's really the sudden reverses, the sense of shrewd strategy underlying all the machinations, that makes the movie such a ride, mate.

Layer Cake (105 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for extreme violence, including a brutal beating and several close-range shootings.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company