- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2005

Matthew Vaughn clearly learned a thing or two while producing “Snatch” and “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” for director pal Guy Ritchie.

To be more accurate, Mr. Vaughn learned what not to do when crafting a gangster story.

“Layer Cake,” Mr. Vaughn’s gripping directorial debut, doesn’t lose itself in stylish set pieces or operatic violence. It’s as grimy as the crimes its characters commit, a morality tale suffused with menace and thick with double dealings.

Suddenly, word that Mr. Vaughn will oversee the next “X-Men” movie sounds like very good news, indeed.

The film stars is-he or is-he-not the next Bond Daniel Craig as a gangster who fancies himself above the criminals in his peer group. Dubbed XXXX by the credits, Mr. Craig’s unnamed anti-hero has made a fine living in the cocaine trade, and all he wants now is to retire in peace.

Fat chance, as anyone who’s ever seen a gangster film can attest.

The local crime boss (Kenneth Cranham) will let him leave, but only if he finds a fellow kingpin’s missing daughter and negotiates a major drug deal with a dealer who reeks of trouble.

XXXX accepts, and immediately his assignments go sour. The missing girl is enmeshed in a drug-addicted subculture, one that XXXX tries to crack with the help of some old pals, and the dealer in question immediately mucks up a major sale.

XXXX is no dummy. He realizes he’s being used, but he isn’t sure how to extricate himself from the larger game at hand. It doesn’t help that he falls for a lovely barfly (Sienna Miller), who distracts him from his duties.

The layers in this filling “Cake” stand for the strata of British society, from crack dens to the highest corridors of corrupt power. They could easily stand for Mr. Craig’s XXXX, a textured gangster without an established past, present or even identity. The actor’s imperfect features and coiled energy fill in most of the blanks, and when his character reluctantly picks up a gun in his own defense, we get a glimpse of what he might look like as a certain secret agent — different in all the right ways.

Mr. Vaughn tells this complicated story, adapted by J.J. Connolly from his own novel, without losing himself in the details. The twists are intricate, but even casual observers will follow every bend and buttonhook.

“Layer Cake” starts to flatten around the middle until the father of the missing addict roars into view. “Harry Potter’s” Michael Gambon gives Mr. Craig a lesson in screen authority as a polished crime figure, making us squirm without raising his voice or a fist.

“Layer Cake” is a pretty good springboard for Mr. Craig’s entry into Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It’s the ideal showcase for Mr. Vaughn’s directorial career.

***

TITLE: “Layer Cake”

RATING: R (Violence, sexual situations, coarse language and mature themes)

CREDITS: Directed and co-produced by Matthew Vaughn. Written by J.J. Connolly based on his own novel.

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes

WEB SITE: www.layercake.co.uk

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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