There's a good reason Layer Cake feels like a Guy Ritchie movie: Ritchie was slated to direct, but dropped out, leaving the task to his longtime producer Matthew Vaughn. So it probably shouldn't come as much of a surprise that Vaughn directs like a poor man's Guy Ritchie, or that the film takes audiences on a not-so-magical journey back to when seemingly every British thriller worshipped at the altar of Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels.
Adapted by J.J. Connolly from his novel, the film casts Daniel Craig as a successful, relatively inconspicuous cocaine dealer looking to make one big score so he can get out of the business for good. Alas, the drug trade is filled with dangerous variables, and in spite of considerable savvy and guile, Craig seems to bump up against most of them as he and his men frantically strive to extricate themselves from a series of impossible situations. Craig aspires to leave behind the underworld's muck and filth, but to do so, he must first immerse himself deeper into it.
Layer Cake is plagued by an identity crisis. For much of its duration, the film seems set in the hedonistic playground of Lad Land, that Maxim-and-Ritchie fueled adolescent playground where the crooks are as colorful as they are profane, the gadgets and gizmos are awesome, the drugs plentiful, and the women eminently shagworthy. But that world lost its novelty and outlaw allure around the time Snatch came out. At other times, the film seems to be aiming for something more mature and satisfying, a tough-minded character study of the cocaine dealer as bloodless but highly efficient middle manager. The always-dependable and chameleon-like Craig has the chops and substance for that kind of film, but Vaughn prefers to keep matters brisk and superficial. Vaughn and Craig are both rumored to be making big moves in international cinema: Craig stands as the latest front-runner to replace Pierce Brosnan as the next James Bond, while Vaughn has landed the choice gig of directing the second X-Men sequel. Judging from their work here, Craig deserves his possible promotion, but Vaughn does not.