Layer Cake
dir. Vaughn
Opens Fri May 27
Fox Tower

Layer Cake's neophyte director is Matthew Vaughn, whose filmmaking experience to date largely consists of producing Guy Ritchie's films (yes, even Swept Away). Vaughn doesn't steer too far from the neo-British gangster/heist film genre with this one, and considering I'm the only person under the age of 31 who didn't like Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, I wasn't expecting to enjoy Layer Cake. But I did.

Daniel Craig stars as an unnamed London dope distributor (he's credited as "XXXX") who's hoping to retire. His last assignment, of course, is a snafu waiting to happen--not only does he have to find the daughter of local businessman (Michael Gambon), but he also has to unload a shit-ton of ecstasy stolen from Serbian druglords. XXXX soon discovers that, for the most part, you can never leave the business--or if you do, it won't be when or how you decide.

Despite hefty backstory and numerous characters, Vaughan never loses track of the film's plot-driven focus. (Credit also goes to screenwriter J.J. Connolly, adapting his own novel and keeping things tight, sharp, and rapid.)

What distinguishes Layer Cake from other similar films (i.e. the others Vaughn has produced) is that it avoids making its characters caricatures. When, for instance, Gambon's character mentions his penchant for meditation, it's fitting, not quirky. As a result, the film escapes becoming a Ritchie--or even a Tarantino--knockoff and is content for what it is: A good crime thriller. True, Layer Cake can't begin to compare with classics of the genre, like Chinatown or Touch of Evil. But for 2005, it's inspired.

Much of the film's charisma is due to Craig, who plays the lead very matter-of-factly; he's not over-confident, or over-ambitious, or even very insightful. Instead, he's appropriately clever, loyal (to an extent), and level-headed. And once his shirt comes off, you'd kill your own mother to get another hit.