The never-named narrator/protagonist of the stylish British gangster film "Layer Cake" tells us from the beginning, "I'm not a gangster, but a businessman whose commodity happens to be cocaine."
Played with cool aplomb by Daniel Craig, the nongangster drug dealer is meticulous about the way he handles his affairs. As the middleman of an international drug-trafficking ring, he appears to be good at what he does, adhering to a strict set of rules designed to keep him out of the reach of both the law and the seedier denizens of the British underworld.
At the outset, we learn that XXXX (as he's identified in the credits) has decided to walk away from the business that has been very lucrative for him and go legit. As we have learned from umpteen like-minded genre films, that simply isn't going to happen.
The brutish crime lord who is his supplier, Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham), has an extracurricular assignment for him. He is to search for the drug-addicted young daughter of an even more powerful crime boss, Eddie Temple (Michael Gambon), a long-ago school chum of Jimmy's. Meanwhile, XXXX must also successfully negotiate at Jimmy's behest the sale of a million tablets of Ecstasy, the ill-gotten largesse of a crass, two-bit hood named Duke (Jamie Foreman), who has crossed a deadly Serbian gang in the process.
What sets "Layer Cake" apart from the usual "Just when I thought that I was out they pull me back in" films is a stunningly suave performance by Craig, a top-drawer supporting cast and a dynamic directing debut by producer Matthew Vaughn. After headlining the dramas "Sylvia," "The Mother" and "Enduring Love," Craig has the type of star-making role that has people talking about him as a possible James Bond -- though in truth, he is probably far too complex an actor to be confined by that role. In addition to Cranham and Gambon, Colm Meaney and George Harris are excellent as more gangsterly associates of XXXX.
Vaughn, the producer of Guy Ritchie's "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," "Snatch" and "Swept Away" (we're going to have to forgive him that last one), mines a similar milieu to the first two films and shows a real talent for dealing with antiheroes (for which he has been rewarded with the assignment of directing the upcoming "X-Men 3").
Working from a script full of sharp dialogue and pointedly evocative sequences by novelist J.J. Connolly, Vaughn uses violence in an effective, nongratuitous way to sculpt the world of consequences in which his characters operate.
A jaw-dropping scene set in a tearoom in which XXXX's top lieutenant, Morty (Harris), delivers a savage beating to a man who once crossed him as XTC's "Making Plans for Nigel" segues into Duran Duran's "Ordinary World" on the soundtrack is a bravura display of Vaughn's aptitude for employing pop songs without turning the scenes into music videos.
The Cult's "She Sells Sanctuary" and the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" are also used to great effect.
It's not a perfect film, marred by some misguided flashbacks, an overcomplicated narrative and perhaps one too many reversals for its own good.
However, "Layer Cake" -- which draws its title from an implicit reference to the British class system and an explicit one in which Temple explains to XXXX their relative places in the criminal hierarchy -- is a sleek, effective entertainment that is a refreshing respite from the slick emptiness of recent American crime dramas.
MPAA rating: R for strong brutal violence, sexuality, nudity, pervasive language and drug use
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Director Matthew Vaughn. Producers Matthew Vaughn, David Reid, Adam Bohling. Executive producer Stephen Marks. Screenplay by J.J. Connolly, adapted from his novel. Director of photography Ben Davis. Editor Jon Harris. Production designer Kave Quinn. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
In selected theaters.