One year and ten days after Layer Cake opened in theaters, a press conference was held in London (where the film is set) by Eon Productions, Sony Pictures Entertainment, and MGM to announce that Daniel Craig, star of Layer Cake, had been cast as the new James Bond in the forthcoming Casino Royale. Now, whether Craig would have become Bond without Layer Cake is technically impossible to say—Bond producer Michael G. Wilson said later that more than 200 actors had been considered for the role, and there’s no way to source that unless you were in the room—but it’s reasonable to assert that Layer Cake was instrumental in the casting. The movie is a slick, twisty, violent, entertaining British crime thriller in which Craig plays a drug trafficker who reluctantly turns to violence when his plans to extricate himself from the underworld start to crumble around him, which has a nice symmetry with his version of Bond in Casino Royale as a new agent still adjusting to the way of things. Layer Cake also lets him be sexy but not sophomoric, action-oriented but not invincible, and smart but still given a run for his money by the bad guys, all things that he’d carry over into his work as Bond. Watching Layer Cake now is like listening to a really good demo tape from someone like Bruce Springsteen: you know where they want to go, and you can already tell that they’re going to get there.
While it wasn’t Craig’s first film, it was the first time behind the camera for director Matthew Vaughn. Vaughn had previously worked as a producer on his friend Guy Ritchie’s movies Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, and there’s definitely some of that broad “OI IT’S CHEWSDAY INNIT” stereotypical early-2000s mugging that comes through here. But the screenplay by J.J. Connolly (based on his own novel) is ultimately a lot darker and more emotionally ambiguous than the pair of crime stories that put Ritchie on the map, and that gives Layer Cake a more interesting texture than it might have otherwise had. Combined, those two forces—Vaughn’s desire to tell a crime story with his own voice, and Craig’s skill as a performer and ambition as a working actor—make Layer Cake pulse with nervous energy, as if they’re sliding all their chips across the table and laying down what they hope is a winning hand.
The plot is as circuitous as you’d expect from the genre. Craig (whose character is never named) makes a good living as a coke distributor in London, and while he doesn’t disdain coke, he certainly doesn’t care about it as a drug. As he says in narration, “I’m not a gangster. I’m a businessman whose commodity happens to be cocaine.” He wants to quit and retire to the long-lived luxury that eludes so many criminals, but before he can, his boss, Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham) puts two requests to him: find the missing daughter of an old socialite friend of Jimmy’s, and broker the sale of 1 million tablets of ecstasy from a loudmouth thief who calls himself the Duke (Jamie Foreman). This being a crime story, things are of course not as simple as they first seem. The old friend Jimmy mentioned is actually a rival, which raises questions about what Jimmy wants with the man’s daughter, plus it turns out that the Duke and his cohorts didn’t so much come by the pills as they ripped them off from a gang of Serbian war criminals who have understandably not taken the theft in stride. Before long, Craig finds himself caught between half a dozen warring factions and in-groups that all want revenge against one another.
Vaughn’s filmmaking style here is indebted to Ritchie, but not in a hindering way. Rather, his time working on those earlier movies gives him a good sense of how to emphasize the casual violence and sad brutality of this ugly underbelly of society. Fights are fast and nasty, with plenty of POV shots adding to a sense of claustrophobia. He’s got a blunt sense of humor with the soundtrack, too: as “Gimme Shelter” plays, a character is literally dealing with a storm threatening their life.
Again, though, what makes the film work so well is Craig’s performance. The increasing complexity of the story is a welcome difference from the “one last score” model that a lot of movies use. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that idea, either: it sets the stakes immediately and lays out a timeline for the audience. But here, Craig has already made that score and is ready to move on. He isn’t even trying to pull off some double- or triple-cross. He just wants to get this whole thing over with. That sense of frustration, of desperation, makes him believable as a man in over his head, just trying to keep up with the growing chaos around him. He doesn’t even have a weapon of his own until one of Jimmy’s goons loans him one, and the first time he picks it up, he’s so unmoored and cocky that he struts around the apartment with it acting tough and looking like—well, let’s say a famous spy.