Layer Cake is a hearty, confounding slice of the British underworld.

Thick and Rich 

Layer Cake is a hearty, confounding slice of the British underworld.

Layer Cake, the new British crime drama from first-time director Matthew Vaughn, is a block of granite struggling to liberate the statue inside it. Vaughn (producer of Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) has plenty of dark threat and compelling visual style, but his ambitious trip into the London underworld is so tricked-up with double-crosses, hidden motives, vengeful secrets and class-conscious social commentary that it bewilders more often than it intrigues. The frequently impenetrable dialects of British coke dealers and street-bruised junkies compound the problem; when you don't know what a tough guy is saying, it's hard to know why he's saying it.

In any top-of-the-line crime movie, atmosphere tends to outrank both plot and character, and that's the case here. The sordid London that Vaughn throws us into comes furnished top to bottom with the kind of paranoia, nastiness and greed that spell Drugs with a capital D. The film's nameless protagonist (Enduring Love's Daniel Craig), who does double duty as narrator, lets us know right at the start where he stands. "I'm not a gangster," he scoffs. "I'm a businessman whose commodity happens to be cocaine. I deal only in kilos."

His big-shot credentials established, he proceeds to run afoul of even bigger shots when he's required to do two favors for a cigar-chomping kingpin named Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham): track down the drug-crazed daughter of another mob boss, Eddie Temple (the faultless Michael Gambon), and strike a deal involving a million doses of Ecstasy with a small-time throwback called Duke (Jamie Foreman). This is where Layer Cake's tangles of motive and power play start to run amok. By the time the first two or three malcontents have been shot to death, you may find yourself wondering who did what to whom and why.

One explanation for the film's bewildering overcomplication may lie with Vaughn's inexperience at the helm. Another might be in the acknowledgement by the movie's writer, J.J. Connolly, that he found almost everything in his novel so compelling that the first draft of his screenplay was 400 pages long.

Just go with the bloody flow here and revel in the vivid performances by Craig, Gambon, Cranham and a half-dozen lesser thugs. Vaughn seems to have absorbed both the extroverted violence of Brian De Palma's Scarface and the sly narrative tricks of Martin Scorsese. (His narrator has to have watched Casino a few dozen times.) In its cool manner and its sometimes startling erudition, this remains a distinctly British piece of work, even amid all the bloodletting. These gangsters drink tea -- and not just as an excuse to throw a boiling pot of the stuff in the face of an enemy.

By the time Vaughn stages a fiendishly clever assassination scene involving cell phones and sniper rifles in a lovely London park, you may be overwhelmed by Layer Cake's morass of detail -- drugs, kidnapping, murder, Third World intrigue, sin in high places -- but you may also be taken by the power of its spell. What's a seemingly random shooting or a baffling turn of plot here and there when a film commands you to watch?

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