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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘The Krays’: Mad, Mod Brother Hoods

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s not that easy to dismiss “The Krays” because, even when it’s draggy and monotonous and undernourished, it still draws strength from its real-life origins.

The film (at selected theaters) is about the rise and fall of Ronnie and Reggie Kray, twin brothers from London’s working-class East End who, in the ‘60s, through sheer psychopathic viciousness, became the city’s premier overlords of crime. In 1969, they were locked away in separate prisons for a minimum of 30 years.

In trying to “explain” the twins, director Peter Medak, working from a taut script by Philip Ridley, casts a rather wide net. On the one hand, we seem to be privy to a pair of monsters from the cradle born; no amount of poverty or hard knocks can explain away their depravity.

But the filmmakers also go to great pains to show us that the Krays were reared during the Blitz in a household run almost entirely by women, headed by their unequivocally adoring mother Violet (the great Billie Whitelaw), her two sisters and the boys’ grandmother. The implication seems to be that Violet’s mother love was really smotherlove--she gave the twins a sense of superhuman invulnerability. In her unquestioning acceptance of everything they did, she destroyed their ability to judge right from wrong.

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The Krays’ mother worship rivals Cagney’s in “White Heat,” and as a psychological explanation for their murderousness, the film’s penny-ante Freudianism isn’t on a much higher level than it was in the Cagney movie. But clearly the lure in this tale is the twins’ dual natures. They’re mama’s boys, all right, but sadism is their specialty: They wield sabers to mutilate their enemies. The twins revere their mum so totally that they don’t appear to have any feelings left over for anyone except themselves.

Gary and Martin Kemp, the brothers who play Ronnie and Reggie, reportedly had considerable acting experience before founding their rock group, Spandau Ballet. They are not twins, but their resemblance is close enough to send Cronenbergesque shock waves through the film (rated R for extreme violence and strong language). Medak and Ridley convert the Krays’ twinship into a kind of incestuous pairing. The conversion is another of the film’s debased Freudianisms but, on a theatrical level at least, it works.

Ronnie, the more actively psychotic of the two brothers and a homosexual, appears to covet Reggie, drawing him into a boxing match in which the two are bloodied in an almost ritualistic face-off. In “The Krays,” the narcissism of twinship--loving your twin because he is your mirror image--is dealt with as primal horror.

The horror is of an especially tony sort, and the treatment freezes some of the material’s rich suggestiveness. Medak isn’t interested in making a high-powered crime film, as if that would be too ordinary an achievement. Besides, “The Long Good Friday,” with Bob Hoskins’ Ronnie Kray-style hood, already beat him to it.

Instead, he turns “The Krays” into a shadowy elegy of doom and gloom. He turns it into an art piece, and there’s something a little queasy about the way he aestheticizes viciousness. For all the film’s two-bit psychologizing, the Krays themselves never emerge as recognizably human. They’re big, looming and puppetlike; their ardent sadism isn’t grounded in the specifics of the era.

The film, perhaps because of its low budget, skimps what was most shocking about the Krays’ career--the way they were championed by the Establishment and show-biz celebrities frequenting their nightclubs, who could indulge their penchant for slumming while promoting the twins as working-class heroes. The public success of the Krays is inextricably linked with the mod ‘60s, but you wouldn’t know it from this film. You also would have no idea of the media circus that has surrounded the twins even after their 1969 incarceration. The Krays are a regular cottage industry in England, complete with licensed T-shirts, boxer shorts, a joint autobiography, regular updates in the tabloids.

In their heyday, the Krays dressed in the dapper, toned-down style of their favorite movie gangsters. The climate of fear that surrounded their lives was incorporated into the climate of show business; the two bled into each other. If Medak had been able to delineate the twinship of crime and show biz, he might have moved the film’s frights into a higher realm. Instead, he’s come up with a classy freak show.

‘THE KRAYS’

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A Miramax Films release. Executive producers Jim Beach and Michele Kimche. Producers Dominic Anciano and Ray Burdis. Director Peter Medak. Screenplay Philip Ridley. Camera Alex Thomson. Music Michael Kamen. Production design Michael Pickwoad. Costumes Lindy Hemmming. Film editor Martin Walsh. With Billie Whitelaw, Gary Kemp, Martin Kemp, Susan Fleetwood, Charlotte Cornwell.

Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes.

MPAA-rated: R (highly explicit violence, strong language).


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