For one drug dealer (Daniel Craig) in London, there are certain rules to be abided by if you want to make enough money to retire early. You stick to your plan, you respect that the police are not as stupid as some of his contacts seem to think, and you don't get any more involved in the lives of your fellow gangsters than you need to. What a pity, then, that he is called to a meeting by his boss, Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham), with a proposal. Well, it's not so much a proposal as an order: track down his associate's junkie daughter who has run away from rehab or face the consequences - which is exactly the kind of thing he was trying to avoid.
There are a lot of bad tempered people in Layer Cake, which started out as a Guy Ritchie film but when he couldn't do it his regular producer Matthew Vaughn stepped in to to make his directorial debut. The result was unlike the earlier Richie efforts as the humour was downplayed to make for a more serious minded thriller, but no less convoluted for all that thanks to the screenplay adapted from his own novel by J.J. Connolly. It's to Vaughn's credit that he didn't let the plot's twists and turns run away from him, but there was a curious lack of excitement here.
Arguing and threats fill up the time as our self-satisfied hero, who is never named and simply referred to as XXXX in the credits, negotiates his way around various dodgy geezers, precisely the kind of people he has successfully kept at arm's length for the whole of his criminal life. He has a small gang of three trusted men around him, and meets with Jimmy's right hand man Gene (Colm Meaney) to set up his drug sales, but after the boss's decision to set him on a mission it all gets very dangerous and there will be developments along the way that change his perceptions of his place in the world.
He works out a way of persuading someone else to find the runaway, offering a handsome reward if they can discover her whereabouts, but that is not the end to his troubles. There is a small time crook called Duke (Jamie Foreman) who has stolen a huge stash of high-grade ecstasy from a Serbian ganglord and he is looking to sell it to the highest bidder. Obviously no one in their right minds would touch it, least of all our protagonist as the Serb has a habit of separating those who cross him from their heads, but unfortunately Duke has been liberally dropping his name (whatever it may be) into conversations about the stolen goods.
Craig is ice cool in a role that proved him to be more than able to carry a film, all this a couple of years before the James Bond opportunity arose, but like the rest of the film he's a cold fish for most of the time. His character's confidence takes a beating, as does he at one point, but we never get the feeling he is losing control as he adapts well to every revelation that is thrown into his path. The supporting cast could do this kind of crime drama in their sleep, and they do bring to life what could have been rather muted, yet despite clever tricks (though Duran Duran was a mistake) to keep things interesting you couldn't say you were especially bothered one way or the other how the story works itself out for Craig's drug dealer. Music by Ilan Eshkeri and Lisa Gerrard.