For those of you who might be unfamiliar with Guy Ritchie's style, his movies generally take place in the seedy underbelly of England and involve crime and usually drugs. The way he tells his stories is what stands out for most people and should appeal to anyone who likes to "figure out" movies (or likes to be confused). Despite the deceptive ensemble casting there's usually a pretty clear protagonist (who often gives a voice-over at the film's beginning) and throughout the film the audience is (almost) never told/shown anything the protagonist wouldn't hear/see. This often leads the protagonist and the audience into situations they can't have expected (although lucky guesses are of course always possible). The movies aren't terribly difficult to figure out after watching them (especially if you have a good memory for names & faces), but the point of a Guy Ritchie movie isn't to figure out what happened, but to enjoy the experience of it happening.
Now Layer Cake isn't actually directed by Guy Ritchie, but it is directed by Matthew Vaughn—the man who produced a couple of Guy Ritchie films—so it has a very similar feel. After the movie sets up the characters it wants to set up, Daniel Craig (the protagonist) is given two missions from the sort of mob boss figure: one to find the daughter of one of the boss's old friends, and one to move a large amount of drugs (what he normally does). As the plot twists and turns you find out that people you thought were good are actually bad and vice versa. The Guy Ritchie brand of exhilarating confusion ensues.
There were two differences in Layer Cake which for me made it stand out from Guy Ritchie's movies, however. Major spoilers begin here (I'm going to reveal at least one major twist as well as the end of the movie).
First, I thought the cinematography was of slightly higher quality. There's this one scene in particular that just blew my mind. Daniel Craig assassinates the mob boss figure who originally gave him orders (because he was an informant out to get Craig in trouble). When he returns home he begins crushing pills into large glasses of whiskey and enters a state of paranoid delusions. The camera here does an excellent job communicating Craig's unrest to the audience: we get weird angles, fuzzy shots, good camerawork but nothing we're not used to seeing in a Guy Ritchie movie. Then the magic happens. There's a shot of Craig all disheveled looking in the bathroom mirror, he opens the mirror where he keeps his pills to reveal that he's all out, he shuts the mirror and now he's well dressed in a suit and tie, he opens the mirror again to reveal a stash of money and a passport, and then closes the mirror and suddenly we're somewhere else. While this sort of jump cut obviously doesn't have the same sort of temporal scope as the infamous 2001: A Space Odyssey jump cut (and probably couldn't exist without it), it has a completely different (and perhaps more complex) function and just blew me away.
Second, the ending of the movie is completely different from anything we see in Guy Ritchie. Even RocknRolla has a happy ending (Johnny Quid cleans himself up somewhat and, despite his previous lifestyle, lives). Layer Cake, on the other hand, ends with Daniel Craig's death. He's shot after announcing to his friends that he's leaving the business (and boy did I jump out of my seat when it happened). Why does Craig have to die when Johnny gets to live? Because (and I'm sure this isn't the reason Vaughn had him die, but it makes sense in my head) by leaving the business Craig is giving up on his drive. At the end of RocknRolla, Johnny says he wants to be just like Mark Strong, that he wants to be a "real rocknrolla". In this way he decides to embody his drive in a way that his drugged out previous self never could. Craig does just the opposite: he's given a chance to take the position of the boss he killed but instead decides to leave and therefore must die.
I'm also tempted to claim that perhaps he has to die for the same reason Shane has to leave at the end of Shane (1953). This is an analysis made by one of my favorite professors from school, Todd McGowan. The argument goes,
In George Stevens’ Shane (1953), for instance, the violence of Shane (Alan Ladd) helps to establish a democratic and agrarian society that will replace the lawless reign of the ranchers. Shane acts violently in defense of the Starrett family and their farm, but his violence has no legal authorization because it occurs before the law has been firmly constituted. In order for the social order that his violence founds to function as a legal entity, Shane must leave at the end of the film.
The arguments relies on the theories of Agamben, Kant, and Hegel, and if you're interested in reading more you can find his essay on The Dark Knight published in Jump Cut magazine here or you can buy his recent book The Fictional Christopher Nolan (I recommend this second option if you're a fan of Christopher Nolan—it's a great book). In any case the argument for Layer Cake would run something like this: Daniel Craig's violence (which he only takes up in response to his discovery of corruption within the business) doesn't have a place within the law of the mob, but functions instead to create a new law, after the creation of which Craig must leave since his violence no longer has a place. This argument doesn't fit quite as well for me since in this case Craig should just be able to leave and not have to die, but there are interesting parallels so I thought I'd include it anyway.