Criminal society is no piece of cake

In his aptly titled crime film “Layer Cake,” producer-turned-director Michael Vaughn takes an intriguing look at the different echelons of criminal society in Britain and the one tie that binds them all – drugs.

Based on screenwriter J.J. Connolly’s novel, “Layer Cake,” Vaughn invites us into the life of Mr. X, an unnamed cocaine dealer played by Daniel Craig. X is a subdued, calculated man who views himself as a businessman with a strange commodity, not as a criminal. He actually claims to detest criminals, guns and violence throughout the movie, even though he finds himself knee-deep in all three for the entirety of the film.

At the start of the movie, X declares that he has just completed his final deal and “barring any (screw) ups” he’ll be retiring shortly. The “screw up” comes in the form of a loudmouth lunatic gangster known as The Duke.

Duke and his crew steal one million ecstasy pills from a very powerful Serbian drug cartel. Millions of pills translate into millions of dollars for X’s boss, drug kingpin Jimmy Price, who immediately orders X to buy the pills from Duke and then sell them to the highest bidder. Factor in that the Serbians have released a ruthless assassin to recover the pills, and the sudden interest of an even more dangerous crime lord, Eddie Temple (played by Michael Gambon), and X’s goal shifts from getting out while he’s ahead to simply getting out with his head.

“On (“Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”) and “Snatch,” we always intended to make serious movies but then humor (crept) in, so we thought this would be the one where we could do more of a crime thriller,” Vaughn said.

Vaughn stayed true to his words. The humor in “Layer Cake” is rare, and delightfully dry when it does make one of its scarce appearances, best described as gallows humor. In one scene, Gene, Jimmy’s right hand man who is played by Colm Meaney, tells X that he kept the gun from a murder because it was his favorite. X chuckles and shoots back, “I hope you don’t tell the other guns you have favorites.”

This subtle form of comic relief works well to calm the pace of the movie at times, especially here, since it is preceded by an incredibly turbulent and violent scene. The downplayed comedy is also, as Vaughn said, a step up from his previous work on “Snatch,” where over the top slapstick characters like Brad Pitt’s gypsy boxer take away from the credibility of a serious crime film.

If there’s one thing “Layer Cake” definitely is, it’s credible. Every character has a niche, a delicate balance between their human side and their darker criminal side. X is an upstart who claims that he’s not a criminal, but when the situation calls for it, he shows that he’s willing to cross several lines to save his own hide. Jimmy Price comes off as a playboy crime boss who is simply living the good life through his ill-gotten gains, but when we see how truly and irreversibly screwed he is because of his dealings with Eddie Temple, his self-serving personality comes to light.

“Layer Cake’s” DVD extras are sufficient, although nothing stands out as spectacular. The deleted scenes serve as missing links in the movie’s sometimes jumpy scene progression. Many of them simply explain how several of the meetings were set up, plot points that the viewer could have simply assumed. The alternative ending is underwhelming at best.

There are some positives though. “The Making of ‘Layer Cake'” gives some interesting perspective on the characters, especially the actors’ and actresses’ commentaries on the roles they play. The standout special features are the storyboard diagrams that break down two of the movies most intense action scenes, giving the viewer an insider’s look at how Vaughn structured these bloody but poignant scenes.

“Layer Cake” is not a replacement for “The Godfather” or “Carlito’s Way,” but it is one of the most credible, solid crime films to be made in the last 10 years.