Hollywood seems to be infatuated with Outlaw Chic. In the past few months, it has released half a dozen gangster movies: GoodFellas, Miller’s Crossing, State of Grace, King of New York, The Godfather Part III and, most recently, Men of Respect. They are all fictional stories of American mobsters, often casting them in a romantic light. But now, The Krays offers a sobering portrait of two real-life British crime lords. Twins Ronald and Reginald Kray ruled London’s underworld with savage authority during the 1960s. Both are now serving 30-year prison terms in Britain. The Krays is a chilling, compelling and downright nasty melodrama. At times, the violence verges on exploitation. But the actors who play the Krays, brothers Gary and Martin Kemp (from the rock band Spandau Ballet), are eerily convincing. And the movie serves up a lethal mix of Freudian and feminist psychoanalysis.
The story begins with an agonized scream of childbirth as the twins enter the world in 1934. Raised in a tough East End neighborhood, Ronald (Gary Kemp) and Reginald (Martin Kemp) set up protection rackets, run nightclubs and dispatch Italian mob leaders with frightening brutality. The Krays become gangster celebrities, cutting a swath through high society. Reginald, who tries hard to be nice, marries a young innocent (Kate Hardie), then pampers her literally to death—she commits suicide. His homosexual brother, meanwhile, is a psychopath who enjoys slashing tendons— and faces—with a razor-sharp cutlass.
The movie dwells heavily on the overbearing influence of the twins’ mother, Violet (Billie Whitelaw), who also serves as the film’s ruthless intelligence. “Men are born children and they stay children,” she says. After her beloved sons maul each other in a boxing match, her husband calls it a good fight. “Fighting,” she snaps, “is bringing up three kids through the war without enough food to bring a cat up on.” But despite the feminist subtext, it is unclear whether Violet is supposed to be a sympathetic victim or the ultimate source of evil. And as a movie, The Krays remains as obscurely motivated as its characters.
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