Whenever a filmmaker of note premieres a new film, it’s a good time to revisit that director’s debut to gauge how far they’ve come as an artist. With Kingsman: The Golden Circle currently in theaters, we take a look back at Matthew Vaughn’s gangster comedy Layer Cake. Note: The following article contains spoilers for both that film and Kingsman: The Secret Service.
“Everyone likes to walk through a door marked ‘private.’”
So narrates Daniel Craig’s unnamed criminal protagonist (designated “XXXX” by IMDb) at the start of the dense and propulsive Layer Cake, the confident debut that launched Matthew Vaughn’s career. Since then, the director has gone on to helm the screen adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, the ultraviolent superhero spoof Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class and the two Kingsman movies. In other words, Vaughn is clearly drawn to the quixotic and the cartoonish, a tendency that Layer Cake doesn’t evince—not at first, anyway. The film’s lineage most obviously incorporates gritty gangland pictures like Goodfellas, whose interest in pulling back the curtain on criminal operations is shared by Layer Cake from its very first scene.
There, a montage takes us through the supply chain of the mobsters for whom XXXX works as a middleman; his superiors include big brass Jimmy (Kenneth Cranham) and a couple lower-level associates, Morty (George Harris) and Gene (Colm Meaney). Craig, in a casual voiceover accompanied by music that wouldn’t feel out of place in a hotel lobby, gives us the rundown via the well-rehearsed, vaguely self-satisfied spiel of a man who knows the ropes and is aware of it. In mood, this introductory segment pulls as much from Soderbergh as it does Scorsese, revealing that, for XXXX and the movie he holds together, the modus operandi is calm, cool and collected. No wonder Craig ended up being tapped for the new Bond.
Problem is, smooth operating is a group effort in the business world, and if you’re the only one with any shred of sense, things will inevitably go sideways. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert observed that XXXX’s smartness fails to be an asset since he’s surrounded by “dumbos” who “are likely to do anything,” and, indeed, the crux of Layer Cake’s fun lies in watching our protagonist’s desperate attempts at damage control as colleague after colleague jeopardizes their organization by doing something stupid. On paper, the film sounds like it’s about gangsters, but it’s really about a panicked babysitter trying to keep a mob of children in line. The catch: These are tough-as-nails man-babies who would pump you full of lead at the drop of a hat. In other words, the film’s a riotous comedy about one man’s life turning into a nightmare, with the greatest punchlines being Craig’s expressions of incredulity—everything from exasperated shouting to blank staring—when his management efforts backfire.
One of the funniest moments of backfiring occurs when Morty, who had until then been one of the more composed members of the gang, unexpectedly flies off the handle and thrashes a dude (in a very public space) to within an inch of his life. There, the comedy of contrasts between Morty’s prior demeanor and his violent behavior is heightened by the scene’s distinctive camerawork, which takes the perspective of the victim (see also: the notorious murder scene from Paul McGuigan’s Gangster No. 1). As Morty unleashes hell at the camera lens, a chipper rock tune blares in the background, articulating a full-on descent into lunacy. Out of the many violent scenes that Vaughn has directed, this is perhaps most similar to the church melee/massacre from the first Kingsman film, though that moment hits greater extremes of comedy and repulsiveness. Both shamelessly mesh ferocity and farce, with the concluding moment in the Kingsman scene—a deadpan shot of all the bodies after Colin Firth’s mind-controlled Harry sobers up and realizes what he’s done—finding its equivalent in XXXX’s perfectly delivered “what the fuck.”
In the end, Layer Cake is all about delivery—of drugs into the hands of eager buyers, but also, on the part of XXXX, of an attitude of cool that will both reassure his clients of his reliability and, reaching beyond the proverbial fourth wall, invite viewers into an elite, rarefied position from which they can look down on some shenanigans. Through his candid, confiding narration, XXXX waves us into the milieu of organized crime—while remaining above it all. “I’m not a gangster. I’m a businessman whose commodity happens to be cocaine,” he says at one point, highlighting his simultaneous dependence on and superiority to the dealings of his associates.
The film does end up taking an interesting turn—a move foreshadowed by the narrative-level focus on processes and the putting up of fronts—by implicating this appearance of cool as being both manufactured and prone to breakdown. “You can’t be in this business and remain untouched by it,” the film seems to be saying, a point hit home when XXXX is gunned down right as he appears to have made it, punishment for the hypocrisy and self-deception that he’s dealt in thus far. This bit of self-critique on the part of Layer Cake—surfacing as it does so late in the film after we’ve already been allowed to identify blithely with XXXX’s perspective—feels a bit like a film that wants to have its cake and, at the very last minute, eat it too.
Jonah Jeng is a writer and film studies graduate student whose work has been featured in Reverse Shot, The Film Stage, Taste of Cinema and Film Matters. For him, joy is found in the company of loved ones, the enchantment of cinema and the wholesale consumption of avocado egg rolls.