I don’t think anyone is going to accuse Layer Cake of not having enough energy. From the actors to the editing, this is a film that makes you want to get up from your seat and maybe go do something productive for a while. Well, more productive than watching Layer Cake ultimately is, as in in the end, this isn’t a film that has much more going for it other than its sleek style and pronounced energy.
Our star is Daniel Craig, playing a character called “XXXX” in the credits. This no-name man is a businessman, or so he believes, whose commodity happens to be drugs. To be specific, he deals in cocaine. For the first five or so minutes of the film, he explains to us how there are rules to his operation, how he must always remain focused on the task at hand, how you must always pay your supplied on time, and how, at some point, he wants to get out of the illegal business for good. He plans on retiring soon, although he is first going to get involved in something that will require the breaking of some of his already established rules.
XXXX is called in by his supplied, Jimmy (Kenneth Cranham), and is told that it’s time for him to pay up on a favor. Jimmy’s associate, Eddie (Michael Gambon), has had his daughter go missing after she became addicted to the very substance that XXXX cuts and distributes. Obviously, she must be found, so that’s the gist of the favor: Find this woman. The details don’t matter just as long as she’s found.
Meanwhile, some stolen ecstasy tablets are currently in the “planning” stage of ecstasy distribution. How does one sell a million tablets without the original owner finding out? Anyway, XXXX gets involved in this plot as well. One thing eventually leads to another, the plots are crossed, twists are taken, and eventually pretty much everyone wants to kill everyone else. Many people die, friends are lost, and it all becomes pretty clear to XXXX: He’s not going to be retiring anytime soon.
There’s more going on than I’ve described, but that would be too much explanation and also giving too many things away. There are more than a few sub plots in this film, and they help keep things fresh, even if there are a lot of down points in the action. While the actors and filmmakers clearly wanted a manic pace to be kept throughout, the script didn’t exactly allow for this. There are a couple of long stretches when XXXX just walks around to different areas and then talk with people. Meanwhile, the filming style and editing choices want to make this seem like the most crazy thing to ever be shown on film.
This is a problem because the film never lets up. I’m okay with stretches of exposition and character building, but when the film doesn’t present them in a way that we would normally recognize them, it’s both jarring and unsettling. Layer Cake wants us to think that every scene is so action packed, but in reality, that’s only true for maybe 50% of the time it’s playing. A consistent filming and editing style is nice, but it doesn’t play well to the dialogue exchanges. If I had to give a reason not to watch this film, it would be because of this. Audiences want a break from constant action, and when your screenplay gives you these breaks, they need to be taken advantage of.
There is ultimately too much going on as well, which leads to a sensory overload. If you’re unfamiliar with how these films generally work, you might find yourself struggling to remember everything that’s happening, who’s double-crossing whom, why this character is acting this way instead of that way, and so on. There is a lot to keep track of with Layer Cake, which does benefit it on repeat viewings, even if it will turn away some viewers. For instance, there’s an attempted love story which didn’t quite work out, as well as some attempted back story given to one of XXXX’s cronies. It might have been beneficial to excise these parts from the film.
Once the action does get going, it’s quite entertaining and the filmmakers seem to understand how to film that much better than the slower moments. This becomes a genuinely thrilling film once shootouts or chase scenes begin. The highlight for me was either our introduction to Michael Gambon’s character, or a sniper “battle” — if you can call it that — involving a hitman, XXXX, and a character we never actually get to see.
The actors are all effective, in particular Daniel Craig in the lead role. Supporting roles go to Colm Meany, George Harris and Tom Hardy as his partners, Sienna Miller as a love interest, Jamie Foreman, Kenneth Cranham and Michael Gambon as others involved in the drug world, as well as a few others who have lesser roles. You can believe everyone in the part they’re given, even if some of them were unnecessary to telling a good story.
Layer Cake isn’t a bad film, but it did disappoint me. It opens so well, and has such energy that it sets itself up for failure right from the start. The filmmakers didn’t know how to switch from action to drama, so their filming style kept with the former, which doesn’t lend itself well when characters are just talking to each other. The action is fun and the actors are good, but there is too much going on. The screenplay wasn’t as tight as it needed to be. Not bad, but not necessarily all that good either.