When the producer of Guy Ritchie’s movies makes his directorial debut, you have certain expect- ations. Is this gonna be another derivative, fast and furious, flashy but empty post-Tarantino gangster movie? Not quite.

Michael Vaughn’s first film is indeed about criminals and it does occasionally go for style-for-style’s-sake, ain’t-it-cool badass attitude and violent gags. Yet there’s a more serious undercurrent, a sense that this is a sad life and these blokes know it. We’re now talking Shakespeare, mind, but this story of a drug dealer’s struggle to leave the business is still pretty tragic.

Here’s a guy who thinks he has it all covered. He follows The Rules: Keep a small team. Keep a low profile. Only deal with people who come recommended. Never be too greedy. Avoid like the fucking plague loud, attention-seeking wannabe gangsters. Stay away from the end user. Stay away from guns. Pay your supplier promptly. Have a plan and stick to it. Quit while you’re ahead.

XXXX (Daniel Craig) feels he’s ahead and thus is making arrangements to quit, but at that exact moment his boss Jimmy (Kenneth Cranham) his him with two jobs (the kind you can’t refuse, natch): 1) Track down the daughter of the infamous Eddie Temple (Michael Gambon), and 2) negotiate the purchase of a million ecstasy tabs from The Duke (Jamie Foreman). Doesn’t sound that complicated but, as tends to happen in this kind of flicks, other interests soon become involved, double-crosses turn into triple-crosses and before you know it, boom! Complicated.

“When I was born, the world was a far simpler place. It was all just cops and robbers.”

This crime tale involves all kinds of oddball characters, from clean-cut mobsters to dirty crackheads, angry Serb killers and one hell of a femme fatale (Sienna Miller). It could have easily ended up a convoluted mess, but Vaughn does a surprisingly good job juggling all the players and the games they play. There are many juicy performances (by Cranham, Gambon, Foreman, Colm Meaney and George Harris, notably) and at the center of it all, Daniel Craig’s poker-face turn as the nameless antihero. XXXX is a no-nonsense smooth operator. To him, cocaine and ecstasy is a business like any other. He hates guns and when he’s forced to use one, it tears him apart.

“Layer Cake” is not the most original or memorable picture in the world, but it’s a great calling card for Vaughn. He makes deft use of image and sound and keeps the pace up while still allowing for quieter character moments. I’d love to be able to say that this will come in handy when he directs “X-Men 3”, alas we’re not so lucky – Brett Ratner’s doing the movie now. Oh well, I’m sure Vaughn will find another project to show off more of his skills in the director’s seat soon enough.