Sony // 2004 // 105 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // May 3rd, 2007
His name is...well, he has no name, he appears to be working without a license, and he operates absolutely un-bonded, too.
Although it clearly appeared to be a cash-in on the release of Casino Royale on Blu-ray, this other Daniel Craig vehicle proves that it's not some inferior "also-ran" offering, despite Sony's attempt to slide in a cover insert that looks very much like that other fellow who carries a gun.
Layer Cake isn't to be dismissed as a shameless sales op riding in the wake of the Bond picture. Daniel Craig demonstrates he was never just a pretty face hoping to be fitted for a tux and a vodka martini. Not yet as fit as he would appear rising from the clear waters of the Bahamas, Craig was nonetheless fit to fulfill the complex role of a hardened man determined in his business yet caught in a conflict between desire and duty.
"I'm not a gangster. I'm a businessman whose commodity happens to be cocaine."
Daniel Craig plays an unnamed drug dealer -- referred to only as "XXXX" in the end credits -- who has done quite a turn in the world of cocaine. He's ready to exit this underworld, though, and plans to approach his boss, Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham, A Good Year), and inform of his retirement plans. Of course Boss Jimmy has other plans for his top dealer, a two-pronged effort in which he wants his star dealer to locate the missing daughter of mob head Eddie Temple (Michael Gambon, The Good Shepherd), while also mopping up after a foolish ecstasy heist by a foolish thug, Duke (Jamie Foreman, Botched).
Certainly, Matthew Vaughn was more than a bit self-conscious that his first foray into the realm of directing would result in the comparison of his Layer Cake with the similarly-themed Guy Ritchie films he had previously produced. In fact, Vaughn candidly revealed he suppressed any hints of the film's "funny bits" from the 5-minute promotional reel, anxious to avoid it being branded a derivative work. And while the overall tone and context is very much akin to Ritchie's celebrated Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, Vaughn's self-helmed outing is easily as stylish yet arguably more restrained. His eye is sharp as he, assisted by cinematographer Ben V. Davis, clearly controls what we see and how we see it, saving the frenetic camerawork to properly punctuate the film's violent content. The visual pace, therefore, is definitely discordant, but for a film that wallows in the "layer cake" of the successfully seedy and salacious levels of the British underground, it's an approach that works admirably.
Credit the cast for providing a pitch-perfect chorus of Britain's social underbelly -- a perfectly orchestrated cacophony of career criminals and various wannabe cretins. Of course Craig is the star of this ensemble, and rightfully so. From the beginning, his neo-noir voiceover flows smooth yet matter-of-fact. After letting us in on his personal pain and eagerness to exit the drug trade, his on-screen performance as XXXX reveals the angst of a man squeezed between his need to safely exit -- and survive -- his unorthodox business venture while his superior is clearly still pulling the levers. Craig fully disappears into XXXX's skin and situation, playing the dilemma in entirely convincing fashion from start to finish.
An exclusive release on the Blu-ray high definition format, Layer Cake benefits from a 1080p / MPEG-2 encode that delivers requisite punch to the proceedings. The colors are rich and fully saturated to bring a "pop" to the picture. Detail is excellent, aided by sharp, often stark, contrast that adds depth and dimensionality to the image. Black levels are well managed and unwanted compression artifacts never rise to a perceptible presence. The audio is impressive and often overwhelming yet it chooses its moments wisely, just as Vaughn had with his visual explosiveness. The majority of the track remains front centered where the dialog remains clear (though, as previously noted, you'll need to keep a sharp ear to follow along, especially if you're not adept at deciphering the nuances of the British dialects). When the action sequences come, the do so with an exuberance that summons the entire soundstage and shows off the audio integrity of the high definition experience.
Extras on the disc are good but not great. The audio commentary by Vaughn and Connolly is informative but does get a bit dry to those not tickled by such a technical dissertation. An armload of deleted and extended scenes follow -- 14 in total -- adding up to roughly 20 extra minutes, mostly expository in nature (with optional audio commentary by Vaughn). Two alternate endings are included, which, as Vaughn states, were ordered by Sony to utilize during test screenings; thankfully, the ending that made the final theatrical cut is the best. A 30-minute Q&A session presents Vaughn and Craig in a candid conversation with London's Timeout magazine. This is followed by a brief "Making of" featurette that, given only six minutes of run time, can't provide any substance of consequence. Curiously missing from this Blu-ray edition are the promotional materials gallery, storyboard comparisons, trailers, and a music video, all which were included in the standard definition DVD release.
As intriguing and alluring as the film and its characters are, there's no denying that Layer Cake is thick and dense, like a pound cake. That is, novelist J. J. Connolly's adapted screenplay is deep and severely detailed in its inner workings. To prevent being quickly left behind, you'll need to pay very close attention at all times, or you'll be lost in the fast-paced developments.
Thankfully, Layer Cake is stylish and engrossing in its own right, and clearly avoids being relegated as an insignificant effort from "that new Bond guy." Craig shows his adaptability in screen roles and looks properly poised to avoid being typecast as just another 007. For everyone involved, especially viewers, this is the best news of the day.
Review content copyright © 2007 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* PCM 5.1 Surround (English)
* PCM 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Director and Writer Commentary
* Alternate Endings
* Deleted and Extended scenes
* Featurette: The Making of 'Layer Cake'
* Q&A Screening with Matthew Vaughn & Daniel Craig
* Blu-ray Previews
* Official Site