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‘Layer Cake’ has all the right ingredients

Daniel Craig plays an intelligent, clean cut drug dealer. By Christy Lemire
/ Source: The Associated Press

There’s a scene in “Layer Cake” that completely lends credence to the idea that Craig, Daniel Craig, could be the next Bond, James Bond.

Craig plays a polite, intelligent, beautifully dressed drug dealer who considers himself a businessman and not a brash, gun-toting thug. He hates firearms and all manner of violence, but finds himself in need of protection, so he seeks help from an associate who has amassed a minor arsenal in his London apartment.

As Craig’s character tries the handgun on for size — whipping around corners, squinting and pointing at imaginary targets in the semi-dark of a quiet hallway — it’s easy to imagine him stepping into Pierce Brosnan’s shoes and custom tuxedo, beating up an international array of baddies and bedding an international array of babes. It’s a great a-ha moment, one that makes you finally understand why his name has been bandied about alongside those of the better-known Clive Owen and Jude Law.

Even if Craig doesn’t get the gig, “Layer Cake” should make him a star anyway after years of strong supporting work in films as varied as “Road to Perdition,” “Sylvia” and “The Jacket.” And deservedly so. He brings a powerfully magnetic presence to a character who has no name and no back story — he’s listed in the credits simply as XXXX — and provides a wiry, clear-eyed intensity to a thriller that’s high on style.

Matthew Vaughn’s first crack at directing thematically and visually calls to mind some of the films he’s produced, including Guy Ritchie’s “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch.” Similarly, it also boasts a well-chosen collection of pop and rock hits to punctuate the action, including The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” as leggy, blond Sienna Miller struts down a hotel hallway for an afternoon tryst, and Duran Duran’s wistful “Ordinary World” as one veteran criminal gets his long-awaited revenge on another with a brutal beating, followed by a spot of tea.

So we’re in familiar territory in this colorful, darkly comic world of British gangsters, though in J.J. Connolly’s script, which he adapted from his book of the same name, the gentlemen lunching at the club in pinstriped suits aren’t so different from the pushers peddling smack to junkies on the street.

Vaughn moves with smooth fluidity between characters and story lines, setting up this tale of drugs, schemes and violence, all of which centers on Craig’s unnamed antihero.

XXXX has made a solid chunk of change and wants to get out of the business. “Life is so (expletive) good, I can taste it in my spit,” he says in an opening voiceover.

But — in a tried-and-true plot device — his boss, Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham), asks for a couple of favors first. He must help sell a giant amount of Ecstasy that’s been stolen from a group of Serbian bad guys, and he must try to find the daughter of top-tier criminal Eddie Temple (a formidable, scene-stealing Michael Gambon) who has escaped from a drug rehab center.

XXXX thinks he has all this under control, with the help of longtime associates Gene (Colm Meaney) and Morty (George Harris). Of course, these things never turn out so easily, but XXXX still manages to maintain his cool as complexities mount. So when he finally does snap upon realizing he’s a pawn being manipulated by the very people he thought he could trust, the moment is even more powerful.

And yet, you want to see him get away with all of it — with the drug sale, his ill-gotten gains and his life. That’s a testament not only to the script’s complexity, but to Craig’s multilayered performance.