“When I was born, the world was a simpler place. It was all just cops and robbers.”
And so begins the directorial career of one Matthew Vaughn, a man whose works I’ll be delving into during the course of this week in preparation for his newest release, Kingsman: Secret Service (which looks to be ridiculously awesome).
Vaughn began his career as a producer, working with Guy Ritchie on his first features, most notably Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. This familiarity with the gangster genre probably gave him the confidence for his first feature, 2004’s Layer Cake.
After listening to a dozen or so interviews with Vaughn, it’s clear that he approaches filmmaking with a producer’s eye. Not only has he produced every film he’s ever made, but his movies come out of his production company, Marv Films (Marv = Matthew Allard Robert Vaughn).
What’s particularly evident is that Vaughn’s certainly not a director who holds his art before the interest of his investors. He’s said that he wants to make films that he himself would want to see. Consequently, he knows how to stretch a dollar, making sure every cent of his budget appears on screen. With that in mind, let’s sink our teeth into some Layer Cake.
The film opens with the aforementioned line about cops and robbers. That sentence and the ensuing monologue serves as a thesis of sorts for the film, detailing how the world of drugs is much more complicated in the present than it was in the past or will be in the future. Individuals’ motivations are never really what they seem and you can never predict when an absolute idiot will do something utterly stupid.
The unnamed protagonist, played by a pre-Bond Daniel Craig, is a businessman in a world populated by greedy millionaires and lower level buffoons. Craig’s character, billed only as XXXX, conducts his business intelligently and efficiently. If every layer of the operation were run by men like XXXX there would be no double crosses or betrayals. Everything would go according to plan. This discrepancy between XXXX’s ideal business methods and the realities of greed, lust, and selfishness is what gives Layer Cake its edge.
At its best, the film is a rollicking gangster tale, spinning multiple storylines deftly between interesting characters whose intelligence level directly correlates to audience sympathy. At its worst, Layer Cake is a hodgepodge of disparate ideas and narrative threads that either end abruptly or don’t lead anywhere interesting.
Vaughn is lucky to have such a talented actor as Craig as the film’s anchor. His character’s calm and collected demeanor always provides dramatic tension when thrown against eccentric performances from Jamie Foreman, Kenneth Cranham, and an unrecognizable Sally Hawkins. With a lesser actor in the role of XXXX, the film would have assuredly fallen apart.
Without a doubt, the visual aesthetic of the film is uncharacteristically elegant for a first time filmmaker. Take, for instance, the masterful opening monologue, which plays over a brief history of drug dealing in England and moves to Craig walking around in a pharmacy of the future. Craig’s character explains that one day every drug will be legal and, when that day comes, billions will be made from it. Cocaine and ecstasy are sold on shelves in legitimate packaging and, as XXXX continues his monologue, the drugs are replaced with household products like coffee and cigarettes, conflating the idea of legal and illegal consumerism. Perhaps drug addicts are just as bad as soccer moms with a caffeine addiction.
But moments of thought-provoking brilliance are few and far between in the film. What Layer Cake excels at is its directorial flair. There’s an editing marvel involving an iron and a terrific assassination sequence but probably the best example of Vaughn’s style is a scene at the midpoint of the movie between Craig and Michael Gambon on a rooftop. It’s a scene that looks iconic but, when you peer beneath the surface, it’s all messy exposition.
Which brings me to the greatest flaw of the film: its inconsistency of tone. Screenwriter J.J. Connolly’s script and half the cast seem to think it’s an action comedy while Vaughn and Craig are making a comedic thriller. The two sides seem to be fighting each other all the way through and the end result is a bit confusing.
Despite a messy narrative, the film as a whole is incontrovertibly sleek, which brings me to Vaughn’s biggest contribution as director, his aforementioned skill at stretching a dollar. The film’s budget is around $6.5 million which, in professional filmmaking, is next to nothing. However, the production design is rich and the sets feel huge. There are multiple outdoor locations, including the fantastic scene atop a London industrial building. The actors, especially Craig and Gambon, are all top-notch. After watching it, I was positive Layer Cake was a studio film with a budget of at least fifty million. It’s a testament to Vaughn that the film feels so expansive.
Definitely check out Layer Cake to see the beginnings of a true filmmaker. He hasn’t quite come into his own yet but the signs of a stylized auteur are starting to show. Also, be sure to pick out the up-and-coming British actors packed into the film, including Craig (obviously), future Oscar-nominee Sally Hawkins, future Bond Quartermaster Ben Whishaw, and future box office superstar Tom Hardy.
Finally, no Matthew Vaughn study would be complete without mentioning Jason Flemying, Vaughn’s self-described good luck charm. This time Flemying plays a gangster filled with shame over his own sexuality. Its a small part but he gets to utter the best line in the movie: “Fucking females is for poofs.”