The English actor Daniel Craig has the rare face that can look dashing and tormented at the same time. He’s sexy in a hollow-cheeked, almost depressive way, like Steve McQueen after too many days on the Atkins diet, and his eyes — a set of steely blues — are as piercing as Peter Weller’s were in RoboCop. In Layer Cake, the fast, convulsive, and densely exciting new British gangster thriller, Craig plays a London cocaine dealer, never named, who is forced to put his most ruthless underworld survival tactics to the test. The movie is organized around a reality that most gangster dramas (though not The Sopranos) repress: the high anxiety of the criminal life. Written by J.J. Connolly, who adapted his own novel, this is the first film directed by Matthew Vaughn, who was Guy Ritchie’s producer on Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and even if you thought that those films were all vacuous, tricked-up kinetic flash, you won’t want to miss Layer Cake. A twisty film noir in daylight, with enough spinning time leaps to keep you on the edge of your mind and seat, it’s like a Guy Ritchie movie with a brain. It’s also the most crackerjack entertainment I’ve seen so far this year.
At the center of Layer Cake is a crook who isn’t quite a gangster — at least, not yet. Craig’s character is a deadpan yuppie of the streets, a stealth opportunist who grooves on the easiness of cocaine money. As he talks to us in voice-over, confiding the tricks of the trade (and his secret plan to leave it all behind) with a seductive aplomb that recalls Ray Liotta’s at the kickoff of GoodFellas, we think: This guy knows it all — the odds and the angles.
Actually, he knows next to nothing. Summoned to a meeting with Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham), his shark-grinned rotter of a boss, Craig is given a pair of booby-trapped assignments. He’s to track down the runaway daughter of Jimmy’s associate, and also to purchase and distribute a million Ecstasy pills from the disreputable Duke (Jamie Foreman). Jimmy, it turns out, has dastardly reasons for wanting the daughter found, and the pills have been stolen — from a ruthless Serb who’ll stop at nothing to get them back. By doing no more than following orders, Craig is in a deep jam.
He meets every dilemma with fierce finesse, yet whether he’s turning himself into a balletic assassin of the night or engineering a sting that pulls the rug out from under the audience, the movie lets us see his invisible sweat. Vaughn stages one tautly electric scene after the next, serving up such memorable hooligans as a ghostly Serbian hitman who’s a step ahead of you even when you think you’re two steps ahead of him; Colm Meaney and George Harris as Craig’s viciously loyal henchmen (one gets off on guns, the other revenge); and the great Michael Gambon as a silky philosophic Mr. Big who’s at once a gentleman and the dirtiest of double-crossers. Layer Cake doesn’t divorce criminality from cool, but by the end of its bravura display of underworld grace under pressure, only a fool would envy these blokes their cutthroat lives.