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Slice Of Strife

Middle man attempts to remain above the fray in new thriller

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There are several reasons to see Layer Cake, many of which have nothing to do with the film itself.

First and foremost, it allows audiences the chance to mull over Daniel Craig, who has emerged as one of the frontrunners in the quest to locate the next James Bond. Next, it provides viewers with a glimpse of recent It Girl Sienna Miller, who captured entertainment headlines for her trysts with Jude Law (she also appeared in a small role in the Law remake of Alfie). Finally, it gives moviegoers a chance to study the style of debuting director Matthew Vaughn, who was slated to helm the third X-Men film until he dropped out of the project last week.

Until now, Vaughn had made his mark as the producer of Guy Ritchie's slick crime pics Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Yet here he beats Ritchie at his own game. One of a piece with the previous two titles, Layer Cake emerges as the best of the bunch, relying less on the crutch of flashy yet empty theatrics to punch across its entertainment value.

Craig, whose character is never addressed by name (he's listed in the credits as XXXX), plays a dapper, low-key member of the London underworld, a cocaine distributor who plans to soon retire from that sordid business and enjoy the rest of his life without constant fear of receiving a bullet in the back. But before he can make his great escape, his uncouth boss (Kenneth Cranham) hands him two b.s. assignments: track down the missing daughter of a fellow crime lord (Michael Gambon) and relieve a boorish acquaintance (Jamie Foreman) of a gargantuan shipment of ecstasy pills stolen from a vicious Serbian outfit.

Neither of these tasks exactly play to quadruple-X's strengths, but he dutifully carries them out, not realizing until too late that both assignments will invariably lead to his being marked for death. And he's not the only one who has reason to fear for his safety: His trusted associates Morty (memorable George Harris) and Gene (the always wonderful Colm Meaney) aren't thrilled that they've been dragged into this cesspool of corruption and double-crosses. Our nameless antihero eventually finds comfort in the arms of a beautiful woman (Miller in a small role), but with the Serbians closing in and the mob bosses toying with his life, he learns that even this romantic interlude is short-lived.

As in many crime flicks, the protagonist is presented as a decent guy at heart, less prone to savage violence than those around him (think of Ray Liotta's Henry Hill in GoodFellas or Clive Owen's Will Graham in last year's I'll Sleep When I'm Dead). Obviously, this is a way to insure that audiences will admire and sympathize with the leading man — can you imagine if GoodFellas had been told from the POV of Joe Pesci's raging psychopath? Yet it's a hedge that generally works, since it gives us a protagonist who's more likely to react with his brains than with his guns (always a more interesting angle to follow). Craig's man with no name is cut from the same cloth as those who preceded him: He prefers words to action, and he only kills when he feels trapped by circumstances (and even then, he takes a shower afterward to wash away his sin).

Craig delivers a coolly efficient performance as this gentleman crook — it's a far cry from his previous turns as Paul Newman's weak-willed son in Road to Perdition and poet Ted Hughes in Sylvia. I still think the actor's too slight and pasty to portray 007 — given the number of oceanside assignments, shouldn't Bond always sport a beautiful bronze tan? — but for other upcoming projects, his newfound charisma indicates Daniel Craig has officially been handed a licence to thrill.

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