Layer Cake and the New Gangster Mythos
When most Americans think of England, they tend to think of tired, old cliches. In Yankee minds, England conjures up bucktoothed colonels, ruddy beefeaters, shrivelled aunties and raging queens prone to saying things like " Pip, pip", "cheerio" and "duckie." One thing England usually doesn't conjure up is organized crime. Of course, one could argue that the British Empire (still alive and well, kiddies, and don't you believe otherwise) is the most successful criminal operation in the world (next to the US gov't, of course). After all, England isn't exactly flush with natural resources, and it's only the inventiveness and cunning of the British mind that keeps the UK from being an impoverished European backwater like Portugal or Greece.
One thing the Brits excel at is spreading cultural memes that tend to infect and take over the world. The past few years have been a bonanza for British cultural contagions- Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and James Bond take up an inordinate amount of the the leisure time of the world's youth. Throw in the still churning (though less dominant) UK Pop machine and you've got even more attention focused on British ideas.
One thing the British seem to have cornered the market on is the arthouse gangster movie. Americans don't know how to make good ones anymore- the Mafia is a spent force and all the various new ethnic mobs are too exotic and frightening. The native charm of the accents and the attitude-familiar to Americans from pirate movies-goes a long way to helping all the violence and pillage go down easy. In addition, British gangster movies seem to be delightfully constructed puzzle pieces- crosses and double crosses, always leading to surprise endings. What's more, there's a good deal of humor thrown into the mix, which makes one think that it's all a jolly good show put on just for a laugh.
Layer Cake has introduced an actor whom people are calling the new Steve McQueen- Daniel Craig. He has the homely/handsome thing down pat, and has a virile masculinity that pretty boys like Jude Law and Hugh Grant seem to lack, much to their disadvantage at the box office. Layer Cake has a bunch of familiar faces- Michael Gambon, Colm Meaney, Steve Foreman, Jason Flemyng- and a serpentine plot similar in tone to Guy Ritchie's movies. But it isn't as cutesy-pie as Ritchie's films. (It also features Jude Law's jilted sweetie, Sienna Miller-who isn't naked enough for my taste, but easy on the eyes nonetheless).
Maybe the British gangster films share something in common with Mafia movies- that sense of the charming rogue. British gangsters seem less romantic than those in a Coppola or Scorcese film, but they also seem a lot less indiscriminately lethal. In comparison to recent American gangster movies- where everyone seems to be sprayed with bullets every five minutes or so- there is more of that intellectual engagement in British gangster movies, as we see the native intelligence at work that allowed a tiny, rainy island farther north than Siberia to conquer half the world .
Craig will soon end up in a bunch of shitty Hollywood films, but that's inevitable. The way things are going, there won't be any American actors left doing anything more challenging than The Wedding Crashers. Aussies, Irish, Anglos, Scots, Canadians and New Zealanders will taking all the lead roles- it's happening as we speak. The dumbing down of America is having noticeable consequences in Hollywood. One of the best films I've seen in ages- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - starred two Brits and a Canuck and was directed by a Frenchman. It took a Brit and a host of Commonwealth talent to revive the moribund Batman franchise, which Joel Schumacher had turned into a multi-million dollar Christopher Street Playhouse production.
Note: This was written in 2005, and since then Craig has gone on to super-stardom with the massive success of the James Bond revamp Casino Royale. It's probably no accident that Casino draws very heavily on the look and tone of the new British gangster movies. Action-wise, it also flows very much like a superhero movie.