It’s the tenth anniversary of Layer Cake today, and Matthew Vaughn’s slick, sophisticated gangster flick remains one of the greatest British crime thrillers of all time.
Launching Daniel Craig to stardom and undiminished after a decade, Mark Butler lists ten reasons why the 2004 hit is a modern classic of cinema.
Warning: Spoilers and strong language below
1. The protagonist
We’re so used to seeing cheeky cockney gangsters that Layer Cake’s posh middle-class criminal is a revelation: representing a compelling new breed of educated, enterprising and entrepreneurial crook. Played with great charisma and verve by Daniel Craig, he’s far from your typical syndicate hood. By way of contrast the film’s loud, bumbling ‘Duke’, who most resembles a Lock, Stock character, is portrayed as a ludicrous relic – kind of interesting, when you consider director Matthew Vaughn actually produced that film.
There’s a brilliant moment when Michael Gambon’s pompous villain asks Craig’s anti-hero if he knows what a Remora fish is – doubtless so he can deliver some scathing lecture and prove his superior intellect. When Craig contemptuously responds “yes”, the surprise on Gambon’s face is priceless.
It’s also worth noting that Tom Hardy, in an early role, plays a Cambridge graduate who’s now cooking narcotics. So Layer Cake beat Breaking Bad by a decade in that respect.
2. The plot
Taking in a dodgy batch of pills, a missing teenager and a Serbian assassin who collects his victims’ heads, the film’s dense, multi-layered narrative spins an elaborate web of intrigue, double-cross and conflict.
The gradual reveal of the string-pulling behind events, the role of key players and the truly precarious position Craig’s character is in, is masterfully constructed.
3. The scale and style
Ben Davis’s beautiful cinematography shows off the magnitude and stature of the capital in a way that Guy Ritchie could only dream of, complete with aerial panning shots, rooftop scenes on skyscrapers and captivating night-time scenes. Never before has a British crime thriller looked so epic.
The razor-sharp editing and innovative style also does wonders in giving the film a highly slick, modern tone. Moving from a slow-motion robbery to the protagonist’s polished front door in a smart part of town, the inspired opening sequence includes a stand-out shot that wryly equates the illegal drug market with high street consumerism, in a flourish of sublime visual flair.
4. The soundtrack
A man is beaten to near-death while Duran Duran blares in the background; The Cult’s soul-soaring guitars greet a full-throttle journey into the countryside. Meanwhile, the haunting ‘Ruthless Gravity’ is the perfect prelude to a tense murder. Best of all however is Lisa Gerrard’s beautiful, breathtaking ‘Aria’, which sends shivers down the spine near the movie’s end.
5. The characters
Layer Cake presents a hugely vast array of different characters during its run-time, but still manages to provide depth and context to both minor and major players alike.
Morty’s backstory (see below) puts his actions and outlook into stark perspective, Gene’s sage, world-weary counsel contrasts with his quick, violent temper, and underworld boss Jimmy veers between sneering bully and terrified loser.
That’s before we even get on to self-improvement sniper Mr Luck; nervy, jittery and down-trodden wimp Sidney; and let’s give a big shout out to the silent but deadly Mr Troop too.
6. The humour
While the movie maintains a mature and gritty tone throughout, there’s also time for some wonderful moments of laugh-out-loud humour.
There are plenty of neat quips (“I hope you don’t tell the other guns you have favourites”), and then there’s the way in which the lead character deals with a phone call from his hit-man nemesis.
7. That speech
Michael Gambon + sublime writing = genuine perfection. His meditation on the state of things can aptly apply to all areas of life – not just the criminal hierarchy.
8. The ‘before they were famous’ support cast
We already mentioned Tom Hardy’s minor role – but it doesn’t end there. Ben Whishaw and an unrecognisable Sally Hawkins are just two of the other small but significant players who were virtually unknown at the time, but are now major, award-nominated stars.
9. The Bond prediction
It’s believed Craig’s performance here played a big part in winning him the coveted role as 007, which he so aced in reboot Casino Royale. But there’s a lovely little bit of unintentional foreshadowing here, when he finally gets his hand on a gun – and gets a little bit carried away.
10. The nameless ‘hero’
Were you one of the viewers who made it all the way through the film without realising we never actually find out what Craig’s character is called?
You’re not alone. Clearly we’re not as clever as the cocky sod after all.