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MOVIES No sugarcoating for 'Layer Cake'



Published: Fri, July 1, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The grim and gritty movie is a no-holds-barred ride through the underworld.

By PHIL VILLARREAL

SCRIPPS HOWARD

Try to get past that terrible title, "Layer Cake," and you'll taste the full flavor of the apex of the modern British crime film.

The title, a hyperextended metaphor for the hierarchy of the business world, criminal and otherwise, makes the movie sound like something sweet and fluffy for dining with fine silverware. What you actually get is a stale crumpet to dip in hypercaffeinated, lukewarm tea while dodging a hail of bullets.

That's the oddly fulfilling taste of the underworld, and don't complain about it unless you want a gut punch and a ride in the trunk. This world of drug deals gone bad, high-rolling and staredowns is all business. You don't love the life, you endure it. And it's all for the smell of a roll of pounds to launder into a golden parachute that will let you bail from the game while you've still got all your appendages.

A directoral feat

Director Matthew Vaughn's hardcase film, while spotted with occasional laughs, doesn't glorify or cheapen the criminal experience in the way so many others in the threadbare genre do. It stomps your face in the mud and makes you fear for, instead of idolize, its protagonist.

Vaughn, who produced Guy Ritchie's British Tarantino knockoffs, "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Snatch," comes into his own as a defined cinematic voice. "Layer Cake" is as tough to follow and unsanitary as those films, but in taking itself seriously, it manages to surpass its cousins.

"Sprinting Through Quicksand" would be a more apt title for the yarn of an unnamed middle-management drug dealer played by Daniel Craig ("Sylvia").

Dark plunge

The Craig character, cool and on top of things, starts off by defining his strict rules of operation, which include avoiding loud attention-getters and treating your operation with proper, unemotional risk management. And then he proceeds to break those rules in a tumble into the darkest depths of the underworld.

Having filtered drug money through a real estate front, the Craig character is on the verge of early retirement. He is pulled into a minefield by his supplier, Jimmy (Kenneth Cranham), who commands Craig to find a daughter of the big boss, Gazza (Michael Gambon), and move a super-sized load of ecstasy stolen by the loose-cannon underling, Duke (Jamie Forman).

Craig gets it from both sides while attempting to pull off the jobs, deflecting heat from his bosses while dealing with his sometimes incompetent employees. It's not a good time to start up a relationship, but in saunters an irresistible clubber named Tammy (Sienna Miller), whose looks may literally kill.

That sinking feeling

Craig is in complete Steve McQueen mode, projecting a stoic, self-assured inner calm with the ability to unleash surgically precise fury when need be.

He is a string-puller and negotiator, making things up as he goes along, sinking an inch deeper with each move.

Business rules don't quite account for daughters who don't want to be found, and stolen ecstacy does not elude its proper owners without a fight. Deeper and deeper you sink, and here come the bullets. Nothing sweet here, and a stale crumpet and bad tea don't sound so bad right about now, because anything tastes better than a mouthful of hot lead.




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