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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Cocaine Business is no Piece of Cake

Layer Cake
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Daniel Craig, Michael Gambon, Colm Meany, Tom Hardy.

Layer Cake is a film about the new world of organized crime: drug dealing as big business, with plenty of sheen and sophistication, and an ethical code only slightly oilier than that of "legitimate" capitalism. 

The nameless British drug dealer at the center of the film, Daniel Craig makes this clear when he says, "I'm not a gangster, just a businessman. And my commodity happens to be cocaine."

As the film opens, Craig is on the eve of his last deal. He has flourished by following a simple program: "Always work in a small team. Keep a very low profile. Only deal with people who come recommended. And it's like selling anything else: washing machines, hand-made shoes, blowjobs: as long as you don't take the piss people will always come back for more."

But the big difference between a CEO in a "legit" corporation like AIG, Pacific Gas and Electric or Enron, and his counterpart in the dope racket is simple and straightforward: a business leader who blows it in a Fortune 500 corporation is rewarded with golden parachutes, stock options, bonuses and "walking away" money; an executive who screws up in the world of high-stakes crime just gets a bullet in the head.

And, as the laundry list of dead dealers named at one key point in this movie movies makes clear, everybody in the racket screws up sooner or later. Craig plans to get out before it happens to him.

The key to that is his mantra: "Have a plan. Stick to it." His plan is to leave the business after a final luncheon with his boss and spend the rest of his life spending his ill-gotten wealth.

Unfortunately, during that lunch meeting he gets stuck with a seemingly harmless task: hunting down a higher-ranking gangster's daughter who has disappeared. He blows the assignment and ends up in trouble with his own masters, following in the footsteps of a vicious gang of pill pushers who have stolen a vast supply of Ecstasy from a cold-blooded Eastern European crime boss.

Daniel Craig's nameless cocaine dealer takes an al fresco meeting
to negotiate with some business associates
The flick features plenty of violence (it's the specialty of cold-blooded Eastern European gangsters in films and crime novels), double and triple crosses. Craig's character, who has followed two rules: avoid dealing with "end users" and don't mess with guns, finds himself breaking both of them as he tries to extricate himself from his deadly situation. His fate is constantly in question, right up until the final credits crawl.

Although Layer Cake appears to move slowly from time to time, none of its side-steps are wasted. It's a pleasure to watch actors who have made a career of playing tough guys -- particularly Hardy, Gambon and Meany -- going through their paces; the scene in which Craig's basically non-violent dealer steps over the line and becomes a killer is handled with particular effectiveness.

Colm Meany and Craig discuss their next move in Layer Cake.
Raymond Chandler fiction fans will enjoy the tough guy dialog that J.J. Connolly, who wrote the original novel as well as the screenplay, has splattered around like bloodstains from a mob hit, and the film ends with a switcheroo that makes perfect sense, but still will take the average viewer completely by surprise.

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