The producer of British crime flicks such as 'Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels,' 'Snatch,' and 'Mean Machine,' Matthew Vaughn gained notoriety in the U.S. when he ducked out of 'X-Men 3' shortly before it began shooting. And while that was a wise move on Vaughn's part, people should instead know him for his fascinating directorial debut, 'Layer Cake.' Tonally removed from the playful criminalistic tone of his produced films, 'Layer Cake' is an engaging and thoughtfully dark noir more reminiscent of Scorsese's 'Goodfellas' than Guy Ritchie's 'Snatch.'
Daniel Craig (of recent 'Casino Royale' fame) plays a nameless British drug dealer who wants to escape the confines of his illegal trade. Of course, he can't walk away without pulling off one last con to net him enough cash to properly leave his life of crime. But what sounds like a clichéd premise explored in a thousand other films is actually an intricate examination of the London underworld -- villains and henchmen aren't mere caricatures, plot twists are grounded, and Craig's anti-hero is vulnerable and prone to rash decisions.
But while the film itself is both interesting and carefully crafted, the performances are perhaps the main draw, with 'Layer Cake' making it clear why Craig won the prized Bond role. His drug dealer is fiercely contained, passionately explosive, and intensely calm under pressure. He's a joy to watch as he runs complete circles around anyone on screen just with his sheer presence. Which is not meant to in any way belittle the equally as impressive supporting cast. Michael Gambon, Colm Meaney, and George Harris all bring weight to their performances and make their characters inspiring as well as threatening. Actors like Sienna Miller and Jason Flemyng counter the gravitas of the film with sweetness and manic desperation. But to be sure, this is Craig's show. Whether submerged in action, drama, or witty self-preservation, he appears to steers the film with as much influence as Vaughn.
The script is intelligent, developed, and has a few dry laughs despite the serious tone. The pacing is slower than fans of Vaughn's produced work may expect, but it still hurtles toward its dramatic conclusion with focus and intent. There are no fancy camera tricks or editing flashes -- instead, the staccato dialogue peppers the proceedings and refuses to let up. At the same time, the film again avoids many of the chiches typical of genre films in this category. For once, bosses aren't always well spoken powerhouses, Craig doesn't always have a good comeback, and things don't completely work out for the clever gangsters in the room. This was all refreshing and certainly helped ground 'Layer Cake' with a realism that matches the grittiness of the film's tone. I never felt as if I was a step ahead of the movie.
Having said all that, I did have some problems with the film. For one, there are so many characters that I sometimes got lost when trying to remember who they all were. As a result, I missed particular references the first time around -- multiple viewings will definitely help some viewers make better sense of all the dirty dealings. Second, moments without Daniel Craig felt noticeably empty and I waited impatiently for the scene to return to the film's lead actor. Finally, as with most crime flicks, some of the twists and turns are a bit too convenient to be fully believable -- this is more distracting than it is in other similar works, given this film's more realistic approach. With 'Snatch,' everything was so outlandish and over-the-top that I had no problem suspending disbelief in even the most ludicrous situations. In 'Layer Cake,' it was more difficult to do this simply because the film was working so hard to ring true to life.
These nits aside, 'Layer Cake' is still a highly impressive film that pays particular attention to character development and dialogue. While it could've been a simple return to form for the former producer, it became something much more. Regardless of your opinion of other seemingly similar films like 'Snatch,' you should seriously consider giving 'Layer Cake' a try. Solid performances, dark cinematography, and a clever script make this small gangster flick a great start to Vaughn's promising career as a top tier director.
While you might not expect it from a mid-tier release like 'Layer Cake,' this 50GB dual layer, 1080p, MPEG-2 transfer of 'Layer Cake' is nearly perfect from the titles to the credits. The faded palette and muted primaries never muffle the vibrance, dimension, and sheer power of the visuals. Natural skintones, texture detail, black levels, shadow clarity, and fine object detail are ideally rendered at every turn.
Deep colors leap off the screen -- blue motel doors, red hues in Gene's apartment, Craig's icy eyes, the slick yellow of a Range Rover, and the crimson smattering of blood are all realistic and remarkable. Setting aside the film's intentionally grainy black and white opening, the film's otherwise consistent level of moderate grain bolsters its filmic quality and the depth of the transfer. Sharp details, ranging from stubble to the speckled stone on the final staircase, are crisp and clear. Most impressively, the grime and grit of the film's tone never suffers from the sheen of the transfer and only seems dirtier as a result. The off-color, sepia flashbacks never reduce the quality, long cityscapes are striking, and night scenes are awash in dark blues that have no hint of black crush or macroblocking issues.
Want to be impressed? Head for the closing warehouse deal where Craig gets closure with Michael Gambon. Notice the screen is awash in stark yellows, the cars reflect tiny glints of light, and black suits pop against the bright walls. I'm not sure if I'm more impressed with the contrast or the color vibrance in shots like this, but it's easy to find scenes of this quality every five minutes. Watch the final staircase shot at the end of the film, any scene in any character's apartment, and the main con pulled with the police officers to find a mounting pile of testimonials to the quality of this disc.
The source print is pristine and I have to really nitpick to find problems in this transfer. To that end, there are rare white flecks that flicker on the screen for single frames, but, otherwise, there's absolutely no source noise, artifacting, or pixilation. Beyond this, there are two shots that appear unintentionally soft (compare George Harris to Daniel Craig in the diner scene in chapter five and look at Craig as he walks toward the exit of the country club at the very end of the film) but these shots only briefly detract from the overall picture quality.
All in all, this is one of the most satisfying film transfers I've experienced -- I simply could not get over how astounding everything looked. 'Layer Cake' is hands down a reference quality disc that should be in any videophile's Blu-ray collection.
The audio quality found on 'Layer Cake' is even more impressive than the video. Presented with an uncompressed PCM 5.1 track as well as a slightly inferior Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, the sound package is again excellent from start to finish. Dialogue is deep and packed with bass support, effects are convincingly natural and dynamic, and the soundscape utilizes ambiance to bolster the top tier sound design. Better still, harsh gunshots will come as auditory shocks, warm narration lures you into the world of the film, and a full soundfield keeps the film feeling authentic. There's never a moment where violence sounds cartoony or punchy. Treble ranges aren't dominating and all the surround channels are used to their full potential. Movement and accuracy are dead on and there’s a subtlety to the effects that spread across the soundfield with eerie realism.
For a great example of most of the things I've just mentioned, head to the scene where Meaney ambushes Craig in the walk-in freezer. Shouts never clash or drown out whispers and whimpers, body shots sound wet and nauseating, and the ice box lid smashes down with lush thuds. Pay attention to the way the mix creates the illusion of a small room and expertly echoes every sound. Listen to Craig's wheezing, the shuffling of his clothes against the hard floor, and the squirming rustle of Meaney's hands. The level of detail in this sound mix is truly extraordinary -- everything sounds exactly as it would in real life.
Meanwhile, the music in 'Layer Cake' functions flawlessly on a technical level. Score pieces and songs alike are well balanced within the soundscape, are never distracting, and always complimentary to the rest of the sound design. Equal parts techno pop, instrumental experimentation, and classic rock, the soundtrack clips along and somehow manages to mesh, despite the differences between the selections. Joe Cocker’s phenomenal "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" shares the same thematic space as Craig Armstrong's "Ruthless Gravity," XTC's "Making Plans for Nigel," and Duran Duran's "Ordinary World."
At the risk of sounding repetitive, the audio on this Blu-ray presentation of 'Layer Cake' is one of the most satisfying tracks I've experienced. I don't have a single negative technical criticism. Simply put, this is a reference quality disc that audiophiles will drool over and are sure to replay over and over again.
My first stop when exploring the extras on 'Layer Cake' was a 29 minute Screening Q&A featuring Daniel Craig and Matthew Vaughn. Hosted in September 2004 by the film editor of London's "Timeout" magazine, this interview with the director and star is full of interesting questions and thoughtful replies. Vaughn and Craig are humble, candid, and well spoken as they discuss the film's character and story development. Their answers reveal careful planning and inspiration from various sources including the original novel. Thankfully, the camera doesn't just sit and stare at the three men having a conversation -- instead, behind the scenes footage and film clips have been intercut into the piece to keep it visually engaging. This was certainly worth the time and a solid supplement through and through.
Next up was the "Making of Layer Cake" -- an all too short featurette that is more a promotional peice than it is an in depth examination of the film's creation. At 6 minutes, this is a throw away addition with only a handful of interesting tidbits that are otherwise plagued by repetition from the other features on the disc. The low video and audio quality didn't help keep my interest either, as it is presented as a simple port of the compressed version on the standard DVD. While the same holds true of the Q&A (discussed abopve), that interview was casually filmed in a movie theater and made this quality level acceptable.
Hopping over to a collection of "Deleted Scenes," I was surprised to see such a long list to choose from. Fourteen scenes cover roughly twenty minutes of material that range from a few nice character beats (Gene fishing in the harbor) to pointless conversations that would have slowed the film down immensely. You can listen to the director in accompanying mini-commentaries, but he rarely explains why things were actually cut. Every now and then he mentions pacing, but he's largely silent for the entire set. Two alternate endings are absolutely atrocious and destroy the impact of the original theatrical ending. Vaughn mentions that the studio (Sony) made him film these endings to appease test audiences, but no other details are provided.
Heading back into the movie, I turned on the dry but informative commentary track featuring Vaughn and the original novelist turned screenwriter, J.J. Connolly. While there are a few too many moments describing a shot's preparation, both men tend to stick to character, story, balance, themes, and other subjects that relate to the tone of the film. Fans of the film should have a relatively good time with the commentary, but moviegoers who only mildly enjoyed 'Layer Cake' are sure to grow weary of Vaughn and Connolly's droll voices very quickly.
I became increasingly enthralled with 'Layer Cake' as I plowed through this Blu-ray release. Not only is the movie a well-crafted and entertaining film, but it boasts a great transfer and a spectacular audio package. A solid set of supplements round out this edition and makes 'Layer Cake' on Blu-ray a well-rounded, reference quality disc.