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Drugs, Hypocrisy Flavour 'Layer Cake'

Brit gangster flick pushes stylish, irony laden narcotics.

By Dorothy Woodend 3 Jun 2005 |

Dorothy Woodend has been the film critic for The Tyee since 2004. Her work has been published in magazines, newspapers and books across Canada and the US, as well as a number of international publications.

Dorothy worked with the Vancouver International Film Festival, the Whistler Film Festival and the National Film Board of Canada. She is a member of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle, and sits on the Board of Directors of the Alliance for Arts and Culture in Vancouver. Dorothy is also the Director of Programming for DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver.

Reporting Beat: Film.

Dorothy's Connection to BC: Born in Vancouver and raised in the wilds of the Kootenay, Dorothy's favourite spot is her family's farm on Kootenay Lake.

Twitter: @dorothywoodend

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Lads, cads, highs and lows

A drug is neither moral nor immoral -- it's a chemical compound. The compound itself is not a menace to society until a human being treats it as if consumption bestowed a temporary license to act like an asshole." -- Frank Zappa.

There is an interesting moment in the opening scene of Layer Cake, the new British gangster film from director Matthew Vaughn. The nameless hero is walking through a drug store, which is quite literally that; lining the shelves are stylish packages of heroin, ecstasy, and cocaine from FCUK, all looking very much like designer fragrances. In a voiceover, our hero informs us that "when corporations figure out just how much money there is to be made, that's it for the middle man, but while prohibition lasts, make hay while the sun shines."

The sun has long shone on the business of drugs and all along the way there have been people making extremely large amounts of money. From the maker of Godfrey's Cordial (a baby calming liquid sold in 19th century England that was basically opium and sugar) to Columbia drugs lords, it's the often the very same chemicals. How we think of them, and how we choose to buy or sell them changes frequently. Corporations have also known that drugs are where the money is, and businessmen can be worse than criminals simply because, often, they're a lot smarter. The bigger the businessman, the bigger the criminal is the point that Layer Cake hammers home, often with the toe of a boot, but also in more fashionable ways, upon the sleek bonnet of a Bentley, or the impeccable lines of a beautifully cut jacket. What the film lacks in substance, it makes up for in substance abuse. Drugs are the raison d'etre for this stylish caper, the rocket fuel that makes it all, go dog go, and style can take you a long way. Just not all the way, unfortunately.

One cool cucumber sandwich

The nameless hero is a classic middle man; he has a legit business on the side, but makes his real money from dealing Charlie for even bigger crooks. When the film opens, he is planning his retirement, but unbeknownst to him, fish higher up on the feeding chain have other plans. Nameless is summoned to a gorgeous lunch with his boss Jimmy Price, who wants a favor. Jimmy too has a friend, Eddie. Eddie's daughter has run away, disappearing into the junkie pools of East London, and she needs finding. This, being a film from the producer of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, is only the beginning.

There is an entire cast of colourful low lifes with names like Gazza, Slasher, and the Duke. The Duke is the opposite of our hero, a flashy twit who likes to dress the part of gangster right down to his lemon yellow Range Rover and screaming harridan fishwife who looks a lot like Posh Spice Victoria Beckham. The Duke has done a bit of naughty business, robbing a Serbian warlord of his load of primo ecstasy tablets. This was a very unfortunate idea, as it releases the Dragan, a Serbian hitman who melts in and out of view like a ghost with a very large gun.

Things unfold pretty much like you'd expect in a British gangster film. There is no honour among thieves, they gladly steal from each other, and occasionally slam each other into freezers. It's all about the double, the triple, and even the quadruple cross. If you eventually lose track of just who is doing what to whom, it doesn't really matter, the end is a foregone conclusion. When you live by the sword, eventually, you're going to get a nasty nick.

Daniel Craig, in the starring role of the nameless gangster, brings to mind the smooth operations of a young Steve McQueen. He is one cool cucumber sandwich, with a face constructed of hard angles and great wounded eyes: definitely one for the ladies. However, there aren't many ladies about in this film. Women have only one role here. If they're beautiful like fashion's favorite, Sienna Miller, they exist to be humped, and if they're less attractive, they fulfill the same function, only killed off afterwards. It's strictly lads and cads with the usual cast of British meanies all present and accounted for, including Colm Meaney and Sir Michael Gambon, who do what they do impeccably. Every word that falls from Sir Michael's lips could be engraved in marble. There is something almost obscenely luscious about his diction. When he says fuck, you will feel it right down to your knickers.

Opium’s greatest hits

The film doesn't pose many larger questions about the nature of drugs, nor does it offer any answers. It's content to dabble about. For real content, there are other films far more intelligent and ambitious, like the British miniseries Traffik. (The American version Traffic tidily removed the k but kept most of the original's plot.) Directed by Alistair Reid (The Singing Detective), the five hour miniseries was a much different interpretation of the chains of supply and demand. The same turf was being covered back in 1966 when Grace Kelly introduced The Poppy is Also a Flower. Originally made for TV, the stars donated their time in support of the film's message that drugs are bad bad bad.

But the dictum of just say no, hasn't worked all that well, especially since drugs are an increasing part of everyday life. You only need open your email to see it happen: every day, 30 more promises of a pill for every ill.

The history of drug use is a long one. Martin Booth's book Opium is a particularly illuminating look at how one single substance has come to occupy such a vilified and gloried role in society. It takes away pain yet it causes suffering. Injected morphine was initially touted as a cure for opium addiction because it was believed that people became addicted to opium by eating it, and that bypassing the digestive tract, you could cure this "hunger." Methadone, once thought of as a cure for heroin addiction, has been blamed for a rise in overdose deaths.

How and why drugs are deemed illegal has little do with the drug itself, but who uses it. Opium, cocaine, and even marijuana have been demonized because of their "effect on the degenerate races" according to the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act in the US. Peasant farmers who grow opium poppies often become addicted to their crop. In harvesting their sap from the seed pods, they make a shallow cut in the seed pod; the knife blade must be cleaned in between each cut, which farmers often do by licking the blade.

Higher and higher

The duality of drugs: good or bad, deliverance or dependency, hypocrisy or honesty. That's the tricky business, because you can't have the good without the bad. Or as Booth puts it "... For the consumer nation, opiate addiction is a major health threat, a socially destructive, crime-orientated problem which can also undermine economic and even political stability. Yet for the poppy-producing nation, opium is often the only sure means of a secure income for a large part of the population and a primary source of foreign currency for the state. The fight against drugs in one country is an attack on the well being of another."

Decriminalizing drug use, as Amsterdam and even Vancouver have shown, comes with its own set of problems. But the American example has created a prison system bursting at the seams. If you take the route of Indonesia and simply kill or imprison anyone caught in possession of drugs, you run risks of international repercussions; witness the case of Schapelle Corby, the young Australian recently given a 20 year sentence in Indonesian prison. And ironies abound. While the US may continue its war on drugs, in Afghanistan, the production of heroin spiked after US forces removed the Taliban.

The Layer Cake is the strata upon which society is built, the people at the very top live in land of sugar icing, but in order to get there they must double deal, steal, and kill. The not so subtle twist is that petty thieves, robber barons, even drug king pins are nothing compared with governments, who are sometimes the very biggest swindlers around.

Dorothy Woodend reviews films every Friday for The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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