Too many layers make this cake harder to swallow

“Layer Cake”

Sony Pictures Classics

Directed by Matthew Vaughn

Written by J.J. Connolly

Starring: Daniel Craig, Colm Meaney,

George Harris and Michael Gambon

Rated R/105 min

Opened June 3, 2005

Three out of four stars

They should sell road maps for British gangster flicks.

Movies like “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” “Snatch” and now “Layer Cake” have plot lines more intricate and zig-zaggy than the creases in David Mamet’s brain. These movies are undeniably clever, but one can only keep track of so many dead bodies, so many double-dealings and so many guys named Franky Four Fingers or Crazy Larry.

Labyrinthine twists and turns aside, “Layer Cake”-directed by Matthew Vaughn, who produced “Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch” for director Guy Ritchie-is certainly one of the best films in its genre.

“Cake” tells a familiar story of low-lifes and thugs talking a lot, shooting a lot and generally getting in way over their heads. Thankfully, Vaughn focuses more on character and performance than Ritchie does, who, for better or worse, brandishes his stylized eye-candy like a polished 9mm.

Daniel Craig plays an unnamed British gangster-a drug dealer that prefers to think of himself as “a businessman whose business just happens to be drugs.”

His opening narration supplies us with the typical, but always interesting, tour of the drug world. He wants to get out of its slippery underbelly, but at the same time seems greedily attached to its glamorous allure.

Uh-huh. Doesn’t he know that aging criminals who want to retire are always roped into that one last job?

That “one last job” involves the purchase of one million ecstasy pills from Duke (played by Jamie Foreman), a clueless, high-strung prat who, like all low-level crooks, excels at one thing: futzing things up. Duke and his crew have a nasty habit of waving their guns at the wrong people-a tendency that endangers both himself and Craig.

As if that weren’t enough, Craig is also ordered to find the wayward daughter of Eddie Temple, played by Michael Gambon. Unsurprising, this is no simple rescue mission.

Then there’s the matter of The Dragon, a ruthless phantom killer on Craig’s trail. And what bearing does the murder of a man named Crazy Larry have on current events?

Oh, but there’s more: Craig’s buddy Morty (played by George Harris) beats up a guy to the rhythm of Duran Duran’s “Ordinary World.” Gene, played by Colm Meaney, may or may not have something to do with the sudden disappearance of Duke, and Sienna Miller teases Craig with sexy lingerie-right before he’s bound and gagged and suspended over the side of a sky-scraper.

There’s ample story and plenty of character to layer this cake-and the leftover ingredients are sufficient to bake several spin-offs or double features, should audiences get hungry. Luckily, in the midst of all the confusion, Craig, commanding the lead role, holds down the fort like a 10-ton boulder. His character is unmoving and staunch in his appeal. It’s no wonder he’s been offered the role of James Bond. Craig may not be classically handsome, but his suave, confident polish and simmering anger would make him an irresistible 007.

Craig’s performance elevates his character into higher realms of hidden pains and desires. The way he lusts after Tammy (Miller’s character) and loathes firearms is surprising and humane. He follows through with a suave performance worthy of the line, “Shaken, not stirred.”

While “Layer Cake” doesn’t evade the usual pitfalls of gangster films-the story is too clever to really generate much interest or sympathy for its characters-it’s still an enthusiastic and realized exercise in genre.

[email protected]