At the end of the day, the pills meant fuck-all. It’s all about pride, it’s about respect. They’re going to make as many pills as they want.
— Matthew Vaughn, commentary track, Layer Cake
He wants to just sort of move in and out and disappear.
— Daniel Craig on his character XXXX, Q&A at National Film Theatre
Writer J.J. Connolly and director Matthew Vaughn take an appealingly laidback approach to commenting on their film Layer Cake. As the frantic minute and a half of opening images appear, Vaughn calls it a “history of crime,” or more accurately, the history of drugs’ effects on crime in the U.K. He got John (Connolly) to write it, got the producer to let them label the designer drugs “fcuk,” and sent his nameless protagonist (designated XXXX in the script, called X for the commentary, and played by the splendid Daniel Craig) through a wholly stylized and entertaining bit of business.
Taking a breath, Vaughn invites his collaborator to speak (“John, any comments?”), and Connolly, sounding like he’s seated way back across the room from Vaughn’s mic, agrees. “It’s just a really good kind of thumbnail sketch of like the last four years of criminality,” especially as the piece sets up the relationship among drugs, crime, and money. Vaughn adds that the voiceover was particularly dicey to perfect, as “Mr. Craig did not like being put in the studio and being asked to just say lines.” Mr. Craig, it appears, wanted motivation and context. And so, Vaughn says, “It took a long time to get it right.” (A 2004 Q&A at the National Film Theatre in London, which, along with 17 deleted scenes and a couple of alternative endings, forms the DVD’s hefty-seeming extras package, shows star and director sitting at opposite ends of a table, agreeing on the film’s excellence).
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 Vaughn, whose self-presentation at the National Film Theatre suggests he had to say once too often “what it was like” to make this transition). 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 Connolly from his novel, Layer Cake exposes 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 [Michael Gambon]), and briefly noted relationship-in-development with Tammy (Sienna Miller). 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 (or, as Miller suggests in the making-of documentary, she’s “tarty”).
Eddie is a monster (as a tape reveals, he’s a racist as well as a sexist and murderer: “I don’t think anybody gives a fuck about spades shooting spades,” he says, as the camera pans faces of stunned associates). Fortunately, XXXX pals around with a couple of hardcore sorts, Gene (Colm Meaney), who figures all angles, 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 with an ex-prison mate, and takes after him with a teapot. A second scene, in which Morty lets loose on XXX, makes a similar point: violence is language for them, a means to communicate, to be heard, to feel identified. (“This,” says Vaughn while watching Morty knock XXX all over a room, “is where it all becomes horrible for X, and it was a really tough scene to film”). As the film interrogates the art and costs of violence as a business, Gene and Morty embody its most provocative dilemmas, at once charming, alarming, and hulking menaces.
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.
Craig raises the stakes considerably. He ensures that you see XXXX’s mind wheels 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.