March 10, 2006 -- “Layer Cake” is an intense story about low-level organized crime figures embroiled in a deadly conspiracy in England. Good performances by the leads aid in the telling of a complex plot about betrayal and murder over a drug deal which goes very wrong. Daniel Craig of “Munich” (the new James Bond) stars as a low-level drug dealer who goes by the name of XXXX.
XXXX has made his million pounds and wants to get out of the business. His boss, however, has other ideas and sends him off on an ill-fated mission to recover a runaway girl and to do a drug deal that was doomed from the beginning. The layer cake metaphor refers to the pecking order in organized crime (or any organization) where everyone dumps on the next layer down the line. The idea is kind of like that expressed in a Bob Dylan song which states that no matter who you are, you “have to serve somebody.” The movie also makes the argument that no matter how clever you are (and there are some very clever people in the film), when you are engaged in a business of universal betrayal, there may be no way out.
There are some sexual scenes in the movie, but there are very few women in the movie and the few who appear have very minor roles. This is an almost totally male film. There is also a mysterious Serbian gangster in the film which seems to be directly modeled on the character Keyser Soze in the film “The Usual Suspects.” This mysterious gangster is seemingly all-knowing and all-seeing and seems to outsmart everyone else in the film. His main purpose in the plot is to confuse things and provide very tough choices for XXXX. Michael Gambon gives a fine villainous performance in this film. He makes a great villain here, as he did in the overlooked western film, “Open Range.” Also good is Colm Meaney (“Mystery, Alaska”).
I would have liked this film better had it not been for the determinism inherent in the plot. The whole point of the movie seems to be that life, for these characters at least, is pointless. XXXX and others in the film seem to be doomed from the start. They are all running fast, but they are on a treadmill going nowhere. It seems to me this peculiar point of view may have its genesis not in everyday life, but in show business, where 90 percent of actors are always out of work. Actors have little control over their own lives. Much depends on chance and there is little they can do to ensure their own success. Maybe this is why the notion of fate, or determinism is so popular in theater and movies. Maybe it is just the nature of the business. I'm sick and tired of it. This film rates a B.
By the way, just a postscript note about Daniel Craig. He is fine actor and deserves none of the invective directed at him as of this writing. Give him a chance. I don't know if he'll make a good James Bond or not, but people should get off his back and not pre-judge him. I think he makes a better villain than a hero, but his role in “Layer Cake” is that of a hero and he does a good job in that role. There has always been a bit of villainy in James Bond anyway. Sean Connery reveled in Bond's ruthlessness in the early films. I remember one scene where Bond uses the body of a woman he is dancing with to take a bullet meant for him, and shows no remorse. A lot of people think Connery's Bond was the best, so they were willing to accept that streak of villainy. Maybe Craig will bring back that earlier, more edgy Connery-type Bond from the 1960s and 1970s.
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