Dir:Matthew Vaughn. UK 2004. 100mins

True,the directing debut of Matthew Vaughn - who made his name as producer of GuyRitchie's crime capers - is indeed a British gangland thriller. But it carriesfew traces of the saloon-bar jokiness that was Ritchie's trademark in Lock,Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Although slick and oftenbrash, Vaughan's morality tale, set in the underworld of London drugstrafficking, is a sober, controlled venture that builds up some genuinedramatic tension.

WhetherLayer Cake will emulate Ritchie's commercial success is moot: audiencesmay miss the flamboyant humour suggested by the connection, and promised inplayful theatrical trailers presented by celebrity chef Marco Pierre White.Narrative complexity and a generally dark tone may also prove a deterrent.Nevertheless, harking back to the tough, amoral British crime classics such as TheLong Good Friday and Get Carter, Vaughn proves that he is to betaken seriously as a director. This brisk, substantial venture should find longlife on the DVD market and warm welcomes at fests, especially with a genrebent. It is released in the UK on Oct 1.

Adaptedby JJ Connolly from his own novel, the film follows a successful and namelessLondon cocaine dealer, referred to in script and press notes as XXXX. Played byDaniel Craig, XXXX is a cool, stylish customer who considers himself a legitbusinessman operating outside and above the world of his shady associates -notably, genial but nasty crime lord Jimmy Price (Cranham) and his toughlieutenant Gene (Meaney).

Havingmade his fortune, XXXX plans to walk away from the drug trade business, butPrice entrusts him with a mission: to locate the runaway daughter of powerfulcriminal Eddie Temple (Gambon). He is also required to attend to a consignmentof ecstasy tablets snatched in Holland by a volatile East End crook, the 'Duke'(Foreman).

Vaughnbookends the film with his flashiest stylistic flourishes. The film kicks offwith XXXX delivering a voice-over lesson on the drugs trade, as he walks pastshelves of consumer narcotics carrying mock FCUK brand labels - a sequenceowing much to David Fincher's Fight Club. The film's climax is apunchily edited police raid on a warehouse.

Formost of its length, however, the film is restrained and cleanly executed, withVaughn losing control only at one moment, giving the harshest outburst ofviolence - a thrashing delivered by XXXX's colleague Morty (George Harris) - anincongruously flashy treatment.

Acomplex plot, crammed with double crosses and sidesteps, is sometimes hard tofollow: the search for Temple's daughter fizzles out quickly, and the filmwaits too long to fully capitalise on the threat of a Serbian hitman on XXXX'strail (although this thread pays off in snappy style).

Overall,the film benefits from a downbeat and vivid portrayal of the London underworldthat, familiar as the terrain sometimes is, carries a ring of conviction. WhenVaughn throws in Ritchie-esque oddballs, and cameos by familiar faces such asJason Flemyng and Dexter Fletcher, it's partly to wrong-foot us (Fletcher inparticular is introduced with a smart twist). Locations ranging from ahigh-toned country club to Greenwich Observatory extend the usual ganglandgeography.

Vaughnmay not exactly cast against type - both Foreman and Cranham make the most offamiliar seedy roles - but there are several eye-catching cameos, includingSally Hawkins as the Duke's stridently nervy girlfriend, while Harris makes astrong impression as XXXX's saturnine but unpredictable associate. Thestrongest presence, however, is Gambon, concocting a wonderfully malign blendof brutish corruption and patriarchal bluffness (the film's title comes from avividly-turned life lesson he offers XXXX at the end).

Muchof the film, however, rides on the class, heft and general action muscle thatCraig brings to his suave anti-hero. His self-serving motives make him largelyunsympathetic, and Craig doesn't quite convince us of the moral complexity ofXXXX, who at times comes across - sometimes touchingly - as a bemused fall guy.There's a hint that greater depths might be revealed by his buddingrelationship with Tammy (Miller), a good-time girl with come-hither cheek. ThatTammy is never developed as anything more than a trophy in Agent Provocateurlingerie says much about the general maleness of the film, and its ultimatesuperficiality. Even so, Layer Cake is an ambitious attempt to breathenew life into a British genre widely thought to have burned itself out.

Prodcos: ColumbiaPictures, Marv Films
UK dist:
MatthewVaughn, Adam Bohling, David Reid
JJConnolly from his novel
Prod des:
Kave Quinn
IlanEshkeri, Lisa Gerrard
Main cast:
Daniel Craig, Colm Meaney, Kenneth Cranham, George Harris, JamieForeman, Sienna Miller, Michael Gambon