Saturday, June 18, 2005

A Daniel Craig double feature.

Having heard some good word of mouth and also being a bit curious about director Matthew Vaughn, the director who recently accepted and then walked away from the helm of X-Men 3, I recently saw the film Layer Cake starring Daniel Craig. I'd seen Craig in The Mother and so was vaguely aware of him, but now I've seen him in two films recently and am impressed. Turns out he starred in two other films I'd liked, Love is the Devil, a strong film about Francis Bacon I saw back in '99 and Copenhagen, an adaptation of Michael Frayn's play about a meeting between physicists Heisenberg and Bohr (and his wife). He's also scored a starring role in Spielberg's sure-to-be-controversial film about the '72 Munich Olympics. Craig is handsome, lean and muscular in a way that suggests strength more than a desire to look good, and he can appear hard. Before seeing these recent films, I'd had the vague notion that he looked more Russian than English, for some reason, with his blond hair and pale blue eyes.

Layer Cake is a very enjoyable crime thriller that, from a distance (advertising, etc.), sounds like a Guy Ritchie film, but it's actually more reminiscent of films like Croupier and Sexy Beast. The film begins with Craig's never-named character predicting in voice-over that someday corporations will see to it that recreational drugs are legalized because they're so profitable (a moment reminiscent of Fight Club's Ikea scene, both of them acid little commentaries on modern consumer capitalism), by way of introducing himself as a drug dealer. Now, the many decades of crime film history has given us certain expectations about such characters, but this one claims up front to be different. He's like the gambler going to Vegas expecting to beat the house because he's got rules, a system, whatever. Our unnamed man tells us he doesn't do drugs, he doesn't like violence, he doesn't work with idiots, and he intends to get out of the business very soon. It's a great hook for the genre, for we see his logic, we think, yes, we'd be just that smart about it, too. So will it work? I loved the ending, a clever twist for the genre. Craig is suave yet down to earth, cool yet not immune to temptation. Michael Gambon is delicious as a big-time crime boss. The title functions as a metaphor in the film, but it's also fitting for something that's such a treat.

I was curious about Enduring Love because it was adapted from a novel by Ian McEwan, author of the acclaimed Atonement and of a book I read and liked, Amsterdam. (McEwan also served as an associate producer, surely a good sign.) The film is a psychological thriller about a professor (Craig) who is picnicking with his girlfriend (the excellent Samantha Morton) in a meadow only to be interrupted by a ballooning accident. Craig spends the rest of the story coping with the results of that incident and its unexpected aftermath. We see Joe (who seems to teach a course on the philosophy of science?) in his classes lecturing on some evolutionary theories of love, which are put to the test in this interesting story. Here Craig is a kind of educated everyman, and I was impressed with his ability to modulate several emotions in the film, from serenity to regret to depression to violent anger. Let's put it this way: I've yet to see him out of his depth as an actor, something you can't say about many better-paid stars. Morton is fine, though saddled with a rather thankless part. Rhys Ifans (Notting Hill, Danny Deckchair) is very good as a mysterious stranger whose fate gets crossed with Craig's. Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill, Changing Lanes, The Mother) is impressive, moving from an opening sequence with complex action into more domestic, interior terrain with ease, and the cinematography is appealing without being flashy (nice use of color, reflections, slow motion).

I came out of Layer Cake thinking Craig would be an excellent James Bond, so I wasn't too surprised to find out that his name is one of many being considered, but I remember thinking the same thing of Clive Owen after Croupier a few years back, and though he hasn't played Bond, his career has certainly taken off. Frankly, I think they're both too talented for the 007 series, and I hope they keep making interesting independent fare.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars (Layer Cake).
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars (Enduring Love).

Song: "Kiss Kiss Kiss" by Dirtbombs (Yoko Ono cover) Kiss Kiss Kiss



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