Review: Dead Man’s Shoes (2004)

Director: Shane Meadows

****

In a Yorkshire town, three men stand in a drab little kitchen boiling a kettle to make tea. It could be a soap or ‘Last of The Summer Wine’. What distinguishes this scene from any TV drama is that, unbeknownst to the men, the kettle is laced with cocaine and they are about to get insanely high off their brew. ‘Emmerdale’ this is not.

Welcome to the Yorkshire of Shane Meadows, filled with druggies, hopheads and psychotic avengers. Dead Man’s Shoes focuses on ex-territorial Richard (Paddy Considine, typically engaging) and his quest to exact revenge on the thugs who physically assaulted and humiliated his mentally-challenged younger brother (Rock’nRolla’s Toby Kebbell, sympathetic). Yup, it’s Taxi Driver goes to the Country, but that is no bad thing. When one thinks of Yorkshire, one imagines rolling fields, soundtracked by Elgar and daytime soap themes. Meadows veers well clear of these images, focusing on the depressed little towns that allow such characters as drug dealer Sonny (Gary Stretch) and his cronies to flourish. Instead of farmers and old ladies with their hair in curlers, there’s gangsters and crack whores. John Keats would have had a coronary.

Dead Man’s Shoes is an intense piece of work. It has similar plot points to Taxi Driver, as already mentioned, but there is more of Scorsese’s DNA in Meadows’ film than in mere plot similarities. Like so many Scorsese characters, the populace of Dead Man’s Shoes are filled with delusions of their own self-worth, fuelled either by anger or cocaine. Themes of identity, redemption and the descent of man (all Scorsese staples) are skillfully dealt with, mixing grim reality with sudden bursts of violence, a welcome line in (pitch black) humour and a dread-filled atmosphere. At 84 minutes, Dead Man’s Shoes feels a touch slight, and a final reveal is signposted well in advance, but there is much to admire in a film that brings such grittiness to somewhere so picturesque.

Review: Layer Cake (2004)

Director: Matthew Vaughn

****

Does anyone remember all the kerfuffle that surrounded Daniel Craig’s casting as James Bond in Casino Royale? Of course not, because Craig proved to be excellent casting. However, anyone who had seen Matthew Vaughn’s Layer Cake beforehand could have told you how good a fit he was for Bond. In the role of XXXX (that’s how he’s listed in the credits, and is never addressed by name), Craig excels. His character is a non-violent mob middleman who is driven to violence when one last drug deal goes awry. At one point, XXXX is given a gun by an associate named Gene (the ever-wonderful Colm Meaney). Despite hating violence, XXXX takes to using the gun like a duck to water. On this evidence alone, Craig is a perfect fit for tuxedoes and Vodka Martinis.

XXXX is the centre of an incredibly complex (convoluted? Arguably) plot involving crosses, double-crosses and cross mobsters. XXXX works for Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham), but is Price setting him up? XXXX and his crew have to retrieve drugs from lowlife dealer Duke (Jamie Foreman), but is that a bigger risk than is necessary? How to deal with the Serbians who are also looking for the drugs? Why do they have to find the missing daughter of fellow mob man Eddie Temple (Michael Gambon)? And what do Duke’s nephew (Ben Whishaw) and his pretty girlfriend (Sienna Miller) have to do with all of this? It’s all more than a little confusing at times, but at least there are great performances and eye candy (Hello, Ms. Miller!) to watch. An array of talent both established (Gambon, Meaney, George Harris) and upcoming (Whishaw, Tom Hardy, Sally Hawkins) fill out their roles and make them flavoursome and interesting. Craig’s still the star, but he has a lot of support.

Whilst Vaughn’s stylistic eye is readily apparent with colourful production and ambitious shots, he knows how to distance his film from any established predecessors to make it truly unique. Despite being marketed as another Guy Ritchie-esque mockney geezer flick, Layer Cake is a grittier and darker confection than the repertoire of the former Mr. Madonna. J.J. Connolly’s script (based on his novel) is pacy and precise, keeping both audiences and characters on their toes by drip-feeding information. Meanwhile, bursts of bloody violence and a real sense of jeopardy keep Layer Cake grounded. As XXXX notes early on, “I’m not a gangster. I’m just a businessman whose commodity happens to be cocaine.” Drugs are a commodity, and shots of London’s business district remind us that the world of Layer Cake is a stylized-but-grim reality. Layer Cake is an exciting combination; gritty, dark and (for lack of a better word) layered.