2004’s Layer Cake, on first butcher’s*, appears to mark the beginning of the end of a brief, popular cycle of British capers focusing on working class lads whose penchant for larcenous mischief sets off a series of chaotic events that creates unexpected ripples and rifts throughout London’s criminal underworld. Guy Ritchie, who innovated this sub-genre in the 1990s with the high-octane Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, was actually set to direct this adaptation of J.J. Connolly’s novel before being sidetracked by other projects. Ritchie’s producer Matthew Vaughn subsequently stepped into the director’s chair, delivering a film that, while still utilizing some of the zippy visual trickery and knotty plotting associated with the earlier films, took a harder gaze at the relationship between neoliberalism and the English class structure.
The film’s protagonist, XXX (Daniel Craig), is a cocaine manufacturer who sees himself as less of a criminal and more of an entrepreneur, who credits his success more to his grasp of larger historical market and sociological forces than brute aggression. He begins the film by dispassionately narrating a history of how hardened criminal types saw a huge profit from the counterculture’s obsession with drugs (via interaction within the penal system) and found ways to monetize it, expanding the range of organized criminality beyond extortion, thievery and racketeering. He sees himself as part of a civilizing process transforming the underworld from hardscrabble brutality to a legally sanctioned business. At that point, he assures the audience that major corporations will take over the trade and he’ll take his savings and move into a more legitimate enterprise.
The plot, naturally, requires the narrator’s positivism to get royally fucked with, and that comes in the form of Jimmie Price (Kenneth Cranham), a brash, vulgar working class kingpin who distributes XXX’s illicit wares. Craving the materialist trappings of upper-crust respectability (lavish golf club memberships etc.) he resents those who, like his supplier, take on a sense of entitlement from their suave corporate boardroom airs. Jimmie initiates two schemes designed to undermine, or perhaps kill off, his protégé: the first involves forcing XXX to purchase drugs from a wigged-out supplier whose cache is stolen from Serbian gangsters, and the second involves making him go full-on Phillip Marlowe in tracking down a missing junkie as part of a mysterious plan to exert leverage over Eddie Temple (Michael Gambon), a quieter man of similar cockney origins who actually runs the whole argy-bargy.
Further complicating XXXs conundrum: all of his more competent associates are either as mercenary as he is (thus demanding payment up front, thus providing cash flow issues) or, in the case of his chief bodyguard, Morty (George Harris), forced to flee once an unexpected opportunity to settle an old score makes him a temporary fugitive. The protagonist’s aloof objectivity, faced with these multiple agonistes, becomes ruthless and pragmatic, and he ultimately allows himself to join forces with Temple and accept that, if he intends to escape this trap, he must ascend the corporate ladder by action and fearless ruthlessness.
Layer Cake’s conceit of comparing the code of the gangster film to aspirational white collar professionalism was certainly an old trope by 2004, but it adds an effective layer of gravitas to the film’s quirky, Tarantino-inspired braggadocio that had begun to feel dated by 2004. Additionally, it allows signifiers of class stratification (look at the title, folks) that give the picture a decidedly British feel absent in the Ritchie films. One example is a scene where XXX meets Temple in the latter’s library to sell him the ill-gotten drug shipment. XXX seems interested in the volumes included in the specific collection, which is so big it requires two stories to house. To him, these contents have an intrinsic value of explaining the way the world works. Temple seems vaguely perturbed at XXX’s reaction — to him, these are props necessary to convince business associates with legitimate enterprises of his will to power and willingness to engage in actions designed to maintain it. To the neoliberal mindset, knowledge, as a process of abstract thought, is an instrument of reason and the making of harmonious economic relationships, but to the gangster it is power, and displaying the vestiges of intellectual labor is an action tied to his will. In failing to recognize that, XXX exposes his limitations to his partner/adversary.
This is where the film’s vicarious thrills lie, methinks. It moves from dispassionately deconstructing the gangster genre towards absorbing the viewer in the necessary actions that the protagonist must employ to escape his predicament. It gracefully transitions the viewer from a process of reason towards pure action and consequence. And it nevertheless restores a very British sense of the social class strata in that nation’s crime film tradition (see The Long Good Friday for one classic example) that was downplayed in the Ritchie films. The morality of action as consequence is a force for personal betterment, but it doesn’t necessarily reflect the order of society. As Temple so colorfully puts it, “You’re born, you take shit. You get out in the world, you take more shit. You climb a little higher, you take less shit. Till one day you’re up in the rarefied atmosphere and you’ve forgotten what shit even looks like. Welcome to the layer cake, son.
*Cockney rhyming slang for “look” — shortened from “butcher’s hook,” geddit? — ed.