Overlooked 'Krays' skillfully depicts brutality of London gangsters

May 31, 1991|By Josh Mooney | Josh Mooney,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

THE KRAYS

(RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video, $89.95, May 23. Directed by Peter Medak. Featuring Martin Kemp and Gary Kemp.)

There were so many gangster-crime dramas released last year, it was inevitable that some good ones would be overlooked by audiences. "Miller's Crossing" was one. "The Krays" was another. This film, from director Peter Medak, and based on the ** true story of '60s London's most famous and feared crime lords, is brutal and astonishing and quite powerful.

Like Martin Scorsese, Mr. Medak uses violence not for shock value and not to titillate -- the blood spilled here (and there is a lot of it) is meant to signify just what reality is meant by the expression "violent crime."

This is Mr. Medak's best film since his 1972 black comedy "The Ruling Class," which was one of the highlights of '70s British cinema. He gets some great performances from his cast, notably Gary and Martin Kemp, actors best known in the States as the rock group Spandau Ballet, who play the vicious Kray twins, and Billie Whitelaw, who plays their demanding, tough-as-nails mum, Violet.

Ronald and Reginald Kray were raised in wartime London -- the East End, a particularly vicious part of town, and as dad was constantly on the run from the law, the twins took their cues from their mother, aunts and grandmother, women who had to be brutal to survive. Violet loves her sons, but has nothing but ill will toward men in general. It certainly rubs off. The Krays see crime as a glamorous life, and by the '60s, they've created an empire in London based on their willingness to be as brutal as necessary to achieve their goals. They enjoy carving off people's faces with sabres, if it comes to that.

Ronald (Gary Kemp) is a sadist, and he manages to obscure what small element of civilized behavior is inherent in brother Reggie's character. It is not hard to do. The twins become celebrities of a sort during the colorful era of Swinging London, but, as with any empire founded on brutality, intimidation and murder, it is only a matter of time before they are challenged, by the law and by fellow criminals, and their kingdom comes crashing down around them.

Mr. Medak meticulously re-creates the urban London of the '40s, '50s and '60s, and while screenwriter Philip Ridley doesn't really attempt to explain why the Krays were the way they were, he nevertheless does a frighteningly successful job of pushing the sordid reality of their lives and times in our faces. We may flinch, but we can't look away for long.

THE ROOKIE

(Warner Home Video, $89.95, May 23. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Featuring Clint Eastwood and Charlie Sheen.)

Of all the twentysomething hunky actors who aspire to the screen charisma of the master, Clint Eastwood, Charlie Sheen probably comes closest to possessing a legitimate tough-guy screen persona of his own. So matching up Sheen and Eastwood in a "Dirty Harry"-esque cop actioner sounds like a good idea.

The results, however, are surprisingly dull, and there are plenty of people here who need to share the blame. First, Mr. Eastwood, a top-notch director, never really gets out of the starting gate with this film; his direction is tired and tiresome, relying on everything he's done in the past, and done much better.

The script, by Boez Yakin and Scott Spiegel, is a real travesty; at times it seems a spoof of every other Eastwood cop film. Veteran con Eastwood, a maverick, is teamed against his will with a by-the-book rookie; he insults the kid at first, but later, they become teammates. At other times, it's merely a string of cop movie cliches.

This film is so listless that eventually you'll probably find yourself wondering how many times co-stars Raul Julia and Sonia Braga have worked together before ("Kiss of the Spider Woman" and "Moon Over Parador" and "The Rookie" makes three).

Mr. Eastwood plays an L.A. veteran detective who's not only looking to blow a major car theft ring wide open, but to avenge the death of his partner too. The duo behind all the troubles, he's convinced, are Strom and Leisel (Raul Julia and Sonia Braga), a ruthless pair. Ms. Braga is the real energy center of the film -- her scene with a captive Eastwood is a highlight.

Meanwhile, rookie Sheen has his own problems: His dad (Tom Skerritt) has tried to substitute money for love in their relationship. And his romance with his law school girlfriend (Lara Flynn Boyle of "Twin Peaks") is tough too. Well, that's what you get for dating a lawyer, Charlie.

All of this is dished out as if the filmmaker were following the generic "cop action flick" blueprints. There are, of course, those trademark Eastwood moments, as in all of his movies (remember, "Go ahead, make my day"?). In the films's best scene, Eastwood literally flies a Mercedes Benz out of an exploding warehouse, and then quips the Mercedes credo in perfect deadpan fashion. "Engineered like no other car in the world." It's good for a rush and a laugh.

But five minutes of good stuff do not a movie make. Mr. Eastwood knows this. Mr. Sheen knows this. No one wonders why they bothered to make this dog at all.

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