The Krays (119 minutes) 1991/Rated R – starring Gary Kemp, Martin Kemp, Billie Whitelaw, Tom Bell, Susan Fleetwood, Charlotte Cornwell, Kate Hardie, Avis Bunnage, Alfred Lynch, Gary Love, and Steven Berkoff. Directed by Peter Medak. Released through RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video.
The riveting true-life story of the Kray brothers, Reg and Ron, peppered the British tabloids in sordid detail throughout the 1960s, fascinating housewives and businessmen alike. The trail of mayhem and violence they left behind, either through machine gun chatter or samurai swordplay, remains legendary in the annals of English crime. After their arrests and convictions for the murders of gangsters George Cornell and Jack “The Hats” McVitie, the U.K., and specifically London, gave a hearty sigh of relief. The British comedy troupe Monty Python tried to bring levity to the twins’ awesome exploits by spoofing them in television sketches as the Piranha Brothers.
Director Peter Medak translated their shallow lives to the screen in his 1991 film version of “The Krays.” Starring Spandau Ballet’s guitarist Gary Kemp as Ron Kray and bassist Martin Kemp as Reg Kray, the two musicians and real-life brothers got their first break in motion pictures turning in tremendous performances as the dreaded duo. Gone were the wispy, fey facades they fostered in their videos for such Top-Ten hits as “True” and “Gold.” The Kemps glowered fiercely and hinted with subtlety at their characters’ underlying damaged souls.
Not only is “The Krays” a great gangster flick, it strives to peel back the psychological underpinnings of its two antiheroes. Growing up during the Second World War, the Kray twins seemed to have an eerie, unspoken bond that united every breath they took. A compelling moment early on in the film showcases an amateur boxing bout at a local carnival, where members of the audience are free to climb into the ring for a challenge. The two Krays inaudibly invite the other onto the canvas and proceed to pummel the living ca-ca out of each other. Not only do they play together, they practically want to kill each other! The Freudian probe extends deeper as we see their mother Violet (the superb Billie Whitelaw) smother them with tough love, garnering a greater respect from them than they afford their wimpy dad. They sit by her side throughout the movie like malevolent Dobermans. By the time the boys are rich thugs, running posh nightclubs and wiping out their competition, their dear mum is still seen shuffling around their abode, serving all members in the gang some tea and biscuits.
Gary Kemp’s Ron is a loose cannon, unhinged by the fact that he is a closet homosexual, and incestuously jealous of his brother’s affections for a society girl. The homoerotic tension between the two siblings onscreen lends each scene a taboo-inciting undercurrent that practically screams for a damnable moment of consummation. Martin Kemp’s Reg is torn between his heartfelt desires for a wife-to-be and his all-consuming love for his bro. Martin is particularly effective when he is shattered by the suicide of his wife and then resurrects himself into a homicidal beast far more unhinged than his fellow psycho sibling. The Kemp lads, although two years apart in age, inhabit these doppelganger roles so smoothly — their body language moving in tandem, their wordplay complementing the other in staccato soft rhythm — that they’ve practically invented a new kind of two-headed movie villain. Gary Kemp once told a fan, “Martin is not just the best friend of mine, but my conscience too. And then there are no secrets between us, not even on stage.” These brothers were born to play these roles.
While both of the boys pursued subsequent acting gigs, mostly forgettable straight-to-video fodder, “The Krays” remains their most outstanding accomplishment. The supporting cast is all-pro, and the technicians behind the scenes have made the film wonderful to look at. Aside from a few overextended musical numbers at the Krays’ nightclub, the movie gallops along at a fast clip, twisting and turning through each brother’s erratic sociopathic episode. For a night of insightful, intelligent entertainment concerning infamous hoods on the other side of the Atlantic, “The Krays” will fit the bill like a bloody cup of tea.
© 2000 Ned Truslow