Cloned out of a dozen or more recent movies that were themselves genetic thefts from older films, the new Brit-bad-boy potboiler Layer Cake makes no bones about its inheritances: a self-guarded white drug dealer lookin’ to get out, overwritten narration rationalizing the lifestyle as New World Order capitalism, an ironic tour of dope commerce from the ’60s to today, lowlife amateur traffickers that laugh too much, reptilian superbosses, storytelling that circles back on itself fatalistically, and so on. The self-consciously jittery tale talks up the hierarchical “layer cake” of gangster culture, but it’s difficult to detour around the layers of borrowed baloney, running backward from Guy Ritchie and Paul McGuigan to Tarantino and The Sopranos and back to Scorsese, Mike Hodges, and Melville. What’s abundantly clear is how far this kind of moviemaking has come from any knowledge of real criminal life; it’s a geek’s ineffectual daydream of mayhem. Vaughn, who began life as Ritchie’s producer, knows as much about the quotidian of coke movers as Kelly Ripa.
Not that he and scriptwriter J.J. Connolly don’t talk a good game in the familiar style, all late-noir slang, philosophical aphorisms, eagle-eyed observation, and cant about money, money, money. Our unnamed hero (Daniel Craig) is a crisply laconic midlevel wholesaler, working the relationship between the potentially unstable street seller and the billionaire mobster money men, who can hardly be discerned from politicians. Figuring he’s got every angle sewn up, Craig’s icy-eyed manager plans to retire, of course, but trouble begins when his Mr. Big (Kenneth Cranham) orders him to locate a crony’s junkie daughter, as well as negotiate the purchase of a million hits of Ecstasy from a hair-trigger psycho hood (Jamie Foreman) who’s reaching well above his pay grade. The girl doesn’t want to be found, naturally, but the dominoes truly topple when the Slavs from whom the pills were stolen begin demanding them back. Betrayal, vengeance, doom.
Vaughn isn’t nearly as hyperactive and irritating as Ritchie, but despite its nuances Layer Cake has the tried-it excitement of a workout wall chart. Surprisingly, Craig almost kicks it to life; remembered here first as the weasel in Road to Perdition and second as a weary Ted Hughes in Sylvia, Craig very nearly makes the new movie’s lean, extra-dry, well-dressed Outlaw Man seem like a fresh cut. Vaughn shoots him to invoke Steve McQueen in virtually every shot, and dammit if the deliberate iconicity doesn’t jell. There’s little acting involved—the seething support team does enough of that, notably George Harris as Craig’s right-hand man with a past, and Michael Gambon drolly burbling as Mr. Biggest—but Craig’s vulnerable yet supercool demeanor carries the old-school fiction lightly along.
If one weren’t still wet to the eyeballs with dozens of self-referential Tarantino imitators, Vaughn’s film might prove adequately refreshing, but little more. The subgenre’s half-life is fading—at least, we hope it is—and so an enterprising young turk angling to make a crater with his or her first film could do worse than to contemplate the opposite: a film about crime and its malcontents that actually, fastidiously attends to reality. When’s the last time we saw that?