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Wise Guy 

Legendary basketball coach Phil Jackson was a menace during his days in sneakers and shorts. Other guys hated to play against him because he was so awkward that he was constantly doing things they didn't expect. Muhammad Ali had exactly the same complaint when he lost his first fight against Leon Spinks. And something analogous is the premise of Matthew Vaughn's British crime flick Layer Cake. The picture's protagonist is stylish, careful and smart, but he's undone by a bunch of thugs he underestimates because none of them act the way he would.

Adapted by J.J. Connolly from his novel, Layer Cake is the story of an unnamed character identified in the credits as XXXX. He's played by Daniel Craig, whose patrician good looks are perfect for the role; he looks like the affluent businessman XXXX pretends to be. XXXX is ostensibly a real estate broker, but he's actually amassing a small fortune as a cocaine distributor. He rationalizes his criminal profession in a variety of ways. He sells a product people want, and he believes that someday soon cocaine and other contraband drugs will be legalized and taxed, the government, rather than gangsters, benefiting from its demand.

Though he is one, obviously, XXXX sees himself as something other than a crook. He's an opportunist, an entrepreneur capitalizing on a risky business opportunity. He prides himself on the efficiency of his operation and the quality of his service. Sure, he knows how to 'step on' his powder, how to turn two kilos into three. But that's expected in the trade. He never tries to rip anybody off, never tries to sell talc as blow. And he absolutely never, ever resorts to strong-arm. He abhors guns, and doesn't even own one. Moreover, like so many who commit illegal acts, he sees himself as a short-timer. He's just about got enough cash set aside to last him a lifetime. So one last score and he's out.

But as Michael Corleone bemoaned in The Godfather: Part III, 'Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.' Though XXXX thinks he's somehow insulated himself from the vicious world in which he's become rich, he's surrounded by people who aren't remotely hesitant to wield violence as a tool to promote their interests. And much as he may desire to think otherwise, XXXX doesn't control his own fate. His ride on the cocaine freeway takes a turn onto a bumpy side road when his supplier, Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham), gives him two unwanted assignments. First, he's to track down the thieves who stole a million tabs of Ecstasy from a Serbian mobster named Dragan (Dragan Micanovic), whose specialty is cutting the heads off people who annoy him. Second, he's to find the rich daughter of Jimmy's associate Eddie Temple (Michael Gambon), who's run off into the London underworld in a haze of crack smoke. Both assignments lead XXXX out of his own tidy little realm and into a world where people get stomped to death, tortured and shot with the same off-handedness with which normal people would swat a fly.

Layer Cake's thick British accents are sometimes difficult for the American ear to decipher, and the film's plotting is seemingly more complicated than necessary. I never was able to figure out Jimmy's connection to Dragan's operation. Nor did I ever entirely understand the nature of Jimmy's relationship with Eddie. But I'm not sure this bit of narrative fuzziness isn't deliberate, and I am sure that in the final analysis it doesn't matter. For as the viewer is confused, so is XXXX. Once Jimmy has forced XXXX out of the narrow little area where he operated in resolute calmness and control, it's as if he's been deposited in a foreign land where he doesn't speak the language. And for a time there, he makes the mistake of the American tourist abroad who thinks he can make himself understood by stupid locals if he only repeats himself in a louder voice. Pretty soon, though, XXXX is doing as the Romans do. He's got a gun, and he's shooting people. But like a lot of smart people who dismiss the intelligence of others, he's fatefully slow to learn anything.

Vaughn and Connolly have a lot of fun with names in this flick. In Jimmy there's a price to pay. Eddie Temple is the kind of brainy felon XXXX might aspire to be if he chose a lifelong career in crime. Dragan is pronounced dragon. And then, of course, there's the main guy with no name. The great Ralph Ellison had a nameless protagonist in his immortal Invisible Man, a symbol of the way African Americans remained unseen by the white people with whom they shared our country. XXXX is invisible in a different way. In his hubris, he doesn't recognize his own inconsequentiality. He can't grasp the concept, but in the end, he's ephemeral. And, of course, in that way he's an emblem of us all.

click to enlarge Daniel Craig puts a smooth move on Sienna Miller in - Matthew Vaughn's witty crime flick Layer Cake .
  • Daniel Craig puts a smooth move on Sienna Miller in Matthew Vaughn's witty crime flick Layer Cake .
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