'The Krays': chilling tale of '60s London's twisted twins

November 09, 1990|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Whatever the Kray twins were selling in the London of the '60s, it wasn't Doublemint gum.

Actually, it was protection, and if you didn't buy it, you needed it desperately -- from them. They would beat the stuffings out of you, laughing all the way.

Ron and Reggie Kray were two nasty boys from the London slums who rose to pop stardom as gangster-nightclub owners; eventually, they ruled the English underworld, until an indiscreet set of murders undid their empire and brought it crashing down, as chronicled in "The Krays."

They were created by bizarre psychological tides: They were raised, during the Blitz, entirely by a culture of women who lectured them incessantly on the weakness and craven stupidity of men; they enjoyed the peculiar psychic bond so common to twins -- an almost telepathic sense of each other; they were also gifted with an abundance of strength and physical courage; both boys were particularly proficient with fists.

The results are now spectacularly chronicled by British filmmaker Peter Medak with two brothers from the rock group Spandau Ballet, George and Martin Kemp, as Ron and Reggie. Like "Dead Ringers," this one falls into the genre subset "Twisted Twins." It's a chilling, fascinating movie.

The Kemps manage to keep the two boys separated, a great help in the movie. With massive, leonine heads, rugged good looks and sleek, panther-like body language, they could blend into one character easily enough. As the film has it, however, Ron was gay and slightly smarter and greatly more charismatic, and Reggie straight, more loyal, dumber. Ron pretty much could twist Reggie any which way, except romantically. When Reggie fell in love, it was with a simpering, thundering crash. But he only knew how to give love as he had gotten it: His claustrophobic, oppressive version drove his wife to suicide.

The movie trafficks in weirdness, much of it relating to Billie Whitelaw's presence as Mama Kray. Whitelaw is a powerhouse actress, and that power has never been better deployed. She encourages her boys, while at the same time building a kind of cozy, twisted world in which no fresh air is allowed, which leads to all sorts of craziness. The underleaders of the gang check into the house, take their shoes off, chat banally with Mum, accept tea and crumpets from her, then go upstairs to the meeting world and decide whom to kill. It's the juxtaposition of smothering domesticity with the hardest of urban violence that gives the movie its sake of shuddering creepiness.

In this sense it recalls the great Cagney film, "White Heat," where our crazy hero's love for his nasty mom drove him forward to more and more irrational violence; in the act of being gunned down by a police sniper, he could bellow to his mentor, "Ma! Top of the World!"

The Krays found their own top of the world when they blew their cools and tracked down two surprisingly small fry on whom to perform rather public executions. The Godfather would never have been so stupid, which may be why there are going to be three movies about him, and only one, this one, about The Krays.

'The Krays'

Starring Gary and Martin Kemp.

Directed by Peter Medak.

Released by Miramax.

Rated R.


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