The hero of Layer Cake has no name. This matters less than you might think. Though the very idea of the nameless hero may conjure images of young Eastwood, this fellow, played by the incessantly compelling Daniel Craig and deemed by the filmmakers “XXXX,” is an urban sort, fond of hot showers and fine cars. And because he can afford designer sunglasses, he certainly doesn’t spend much time squinting. He describes himself in dryly self-aware terms: his voiceover goes through the British gangster flick motions: he deals drugs for money, he wants out, he imagines a less stressful, more “legitimate” life. His plot doesn’t quite bear out his own self-image as the coolest guy on the planet. But his faith in himself is charming, for a bit.
XXXX introduces himself with a bit of a tour through his current circumstances: as the camera darts and swoops, you see he’s managing a fairly large, efficient, and profitable organization (“I only deal in kilos,” he asserts). His narration is terse and snappy, the underlying images smart and aggressive, full of quick pans and smashup editing (in the manner of, say, Snatch or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, both produced by this film’s first-time director Matthew Vaughn). To set his own context, XXXX determines that an earlier moment in crime was less stressful: “When I was born,” he reminisces/fantasizes, “The world was a far simpler place. It was all about cops and robbers.” Probably less true than he thinks, but according to his movie’s seductively slick surface, today’s corruption is more complicated, harrowing, and alluring.
Adapted by J.J. Connolly from his novel, Layer Cake proceeds to expose the complications of this gray world, or rather, the layers, the intersections of good and bad, legal and illegal, addicted and audacious, the ways that crime is at the base of everything that appears legit. To get along, he keeps to his rules (“Never get too greedy,” “Know and respect your enemies,” “The law is stupid,” that sort of thing). Despite this understanding, XXXX believes that his far end of the crime continuum is too risky. He’s seen some ugly violence, he deals with exceedingly violent men, and well, it just might be a good idea to move on while still virginal in this respect. “Barring fuck-ups,” he asserts, “I’m leaving it all behind.”
Of course, there will be “fuck-ups.” The film, following formula, gives XXXX a few good reasons to seek a career that’s at least slightly more legit, aside from general principle. He has an exceedingly snooty and unimaginative employer, Jimmy (Kenneth Cranham), a new assignment (to locate and return the crackhead daughter of Jimmy’s own boss, Eddie Temple [the brilliant Michael Gambon, who has too few scenes]), and very brief and insubstantial relationship-in-development with someone else’s girl, Tammy (Sienna Miller, who is, you’ll admit, quite stunning enough to motivate any most silly change-of-heart movie plot). The fact that she’s currently running with one of XXXX’s associates, a young pasty punk suggests that maybe she’s seeking another life as well, or maybe she’s just shallow. Hard to say.
Fortunately, XXXX pals around with a couple of hardcore sorts, Gene (Colm Meaney), who figures all angles and then some more, and Morty (George Harris), who’s served hard time and has no compunctions concerning brutal retaliation or preemption (XXXX calls him “My bridge to the criminal world”). While Gene demonstrates his ferocity on XXXX’s face, following what turns out to be a minor betrayal, Morty occasions the film’s stop-the-show piece, when he loses his mind (apparently) with an ex-prison mate, and takes after him with a teapot (think: The Big Heat, with more macho posturing, less Lee Marvinish hysteria). As the film interrogates the art and costs of violence as a business, these characters embody its most provocative dilemmas, at once charming, alarming, and hulking menaces. (Meaney is making something of a career in playing these thoughtful, ambitious, middle-management heavies, and he’s always good at it).
Once he decides he wants out, XXXX’s trajectory is pretty much set. He has to work his way through two plots first: the recovery of the daughter and the sale of one million ecstasy tablets, possession of which is contested by another dealer, an overtly deranged bloke called the Duke (Jamie Foreman), accompanied by a tetchy girlfriend, Slasher (Sally Hawkins), who favors jumpsuits and automatic weapons. The sheer volume embodied by this crassly criminal couple makes XXXX look even more suave by comparison, as he seems almost to cringe when they start yawking and stomping. At the same time, his coupling with the more conventionally showy Tammy, suggests a kind of parallel more than a complete divergence: he might think he’s headed somewhere else, but he’s only digging more deeply into the muck that generates characters like the Duke.
If XXXX were not Daniel Craig, the film’s clever plotting and imaging would overwhelm him. But the actor — who’s garnered all kinds of buzz for his subtly vibrant performances (as the lover of an older woman and her daughter in The Mother, Ted Hughes in Sylvia) — makes this otherwise regular role intriguing. XXXX’s mind wheels keep turning as he confronts each new impasse (and this is indeed a special talent, to be make such process so delicately visible), and when he does take up the kind of face-to-face violence he’s tried so hard to avoid — partly out of rage and partly to survive — he looks genuinely pained. He’s not so cool as he thinks, and that’s what makes him different, even amid the sameness all around him.