The Krays

tn_kraysRonnie and Reggie Kray were identical twin gangsters who ran London’s East End in the ’50s and ’60s. They owned night clubs (part of the movie SPARROWS CAN’T SING with Roy Kinnear was filmed in one of their clubs) and hung out with celebrities including Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra. Ronnie was gay, and was involved in a political scandal, allegedly having sex with and supplying men for the conservative politician Lord Boothby. The brothers were crazy and vicious and in ’69 got twin life sentences for different murders.

I’m not sure when they did all those weird stop motion films with the creepy dolls and shit.

THE KRAYS is a 1990 movie about the Krays, directed by Peter Medak (THE RULING CLASS, SPECIES II) and written by Philip Ridley (writer/director of THE REFLECTING SKIN and THE PASSION OF DARKLY NOON). I guess that combination is why it’s not a traditional gangster movie. It gives the twins a creepy DEAD RINGERS kinda vibe and spends less time than you’d think on their criminal activities.

In fact, the first 20 minutes is about their childhood. We see their traumatic experiences during the war, and how much time they spent surrounded by women while the men were off fighting. They were protected by their mother Violet (Billie Whitelaw, TWISTED NERVE, THE OMEN, SLAYGROUND) and spoiled by their Aunt Rose (Susan Fleetwood, CLASH OF THE TITANS).

When it gets to them grown up they’re played by Gary and Martin Kemp, guitarist and bassist for the ’80s pop group Spandau Ballet. I know this much is true: the Kemps do look pretty similar with their hair slicked back, but they’re not twins, they’re two years apart. I’m not sure why the producers didn’t go for The Barbarian Brothers, who were probly available, having done three movies in ’89 but nothing else until DOUBLE TROUBLE in ’92. Oh, what might’ve been. For non-Barbarians, though, the Kemps do a good job.

mp_kraysAs young men the Krays followed their grandfather into professional boxing, depicted in the movie when grandpa Cannonball Lee (Jimmy Jewel) challenges the champ at a carnival. He loses, so Reggie takes off his tie, goes in and wins. Then Ron challenges Reggie and the two beat each other bloody until mom jumps in the ring to break them up. There’s something off about these twins, both in their attachment to each other and their love of violence.

That doesn’t mean they want to be soldiers, though. When they’re forced to join the Army they both punch their asshole superior officer in the face and just leave. It’s in military prison that they meet the gangster who recruits them for the protection racket.

When their violence is depicted it’s not very graphic, but it is brutal. The first time they muscle a guy – getting their first club by terrorizing another gangster who’s already extorting the place – they pin him to a billiard table and impale his hand with a sword. Then they make him say “thank you.” Later Ron gives one of his own men Joker-mouth, supposedly just for saying something rude to him. But even that’s just an excuse – he stages the whole dispute out of jealousy, to get his brother away from a girl.

That one’s before they really get out of control. The last incident is a stabbing of another one of their own guys, an old guy too. He’s in such a panic to escape that he rams his own head through a window. Doesn’t work.

Early on, the Krays are horrified by a Siamese twin fetus at a carnival, a “two headed baby.” But by the end of the movie they’re egging on each other’s worst tendencies and huddling together like a two headed psychopath.


Ron’s sexuality comes up, but not in much detail. Mostly in one scene where he kisses a guy in a restroom. It’s not really clear if other people know about it, although a guy does get it for calling him a “poof.”

The women are important throughout the movie. It opens and closes with narration and dream images from their mother. The first scene is about Violet giving birth, surrounded by other women. When young Reggie gets sick, mom and three other women bring him to the hospital, and they don’t like what they see so they rough up the doctor and carry the kid back home. The Krays’ whole world is mother figures, though their dad (Alfred Lynch, UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD) is around. The women all work together to hide him from the MPs so he doesn’t have to fight.

Even after becoming big shots the twins operate out of a small apartment with their mother, grandmother and aunts around. The ladies have tea while the gangsters have meetings upstairs. After Reggie’s wedding to Frances (Kate Hardie, CROUPIER), Aunt Rose breaks down about women having it worse than men during the war, telling a horrible story about killing a baby to save the mother, but “she died anyway, the poor cow. There was so much blood.”

That heartbreaking monologue is several times longer than the wedding itself, which is eerily depicted in one shot with blowing rose petals that match the gunfire from the previous shot.

Unfortunately Frances has less going on than Rose in a similar amount of screen time. We barely see her personality as he meets her at the club, brings her to meet mom, marries her. I think the first time we see her after the honeymoon is when the marriage has gone sour. Then she kills herself.

It’s interesting that they show none of the legal proceedings. We don’t see anything about the police investigating them, or even their arrest, or them in prison. After the final murder in ’68 it skips to 1982 and their mother’s funeral. The brothers are there, but the camera pans around to show that they’re handcuffed.

That sort of unorthodox approach to a gangster story is what makes it interesting, because it’s not a particularly slick or stylish movie. But it’s also hard to fairly judge its aesthetic qualities from the import DVD I saw it on, which is a poor and cropped transfer. (In the U.S. it’s only been released on VHS.) The music – a simplistic keyboard score – makes it seem pretty cheap, even though it’s by Michael Kamen. Maybe he did it as a favor or for fun, because by that point he’d already done DIE HARD and 25 or 30 other scores.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 9th, 2016 at 10:26 am and is filed under Crime, Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

10 Responses to “The Krays”

  1. Spandau Ballet being the worst piece of crap that ever got to record music I was quite hesitant when I watched this in the cinema in ’90. But it is a good movie, and it was a big deal when it came out here in Europe. Still don’t like the band, though.

  2. Oddly enough I listened to Ray Winstone’s episode of BBC’s DESERT ISLAND DISCS this morning and he told a story about one of the Krays (forget which one) visiting his house, when he was a baby. The story goes that he picked baby Ray up, who peed on him. Everyone was silent for a beat then the Kray laughed it off. His taste in music surprised me a little, mostly Sinatra and singers of that ilk (and Johnny Cash). Figured he would have picked a Who track, but his role in QUADROPHENIA went unmentioned.

  3. The Original Paul

    March 9th, 2016 at 3:39 pm

    Well, first I want to say that I am an idiot. (Big surprise, right?) Reading through Vern’s review and the specific bit about Gary and Martin Kemp, all I could think was: “Vern didn’t even mention that one of the Kemp brothers was Henno Garvey in ULTIMATE FORCE? Man, that’s a big miss.” Then I IMDB’d the TV show, and it was Ross Kemp who starred in that one. I swear, our Kemp brothers are like MMA’s Gracie family – there’s too damn many of them to count.

    Anyway, I’ve seen part of this one, years and years back. “Part” because I only vaguely remember it, and I’m pretty sure I couldn’t get through it. It was just too damn cheap-looking and cheap-sounding. (If a score is bad enough, it will ruin a movie for me.) Given Vern’s and Pegsman’s comments, I’m wondering if I actually saw some cheaply-made knockoff, and not the real movie at all. It’s long enough ago that it may be possible. It happened with NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (and to whichever asshole put the knockoff in the real movie’s DVD case and sold it to a secondhand store, who then sold it on to me as the real thing: if you’re reading this now, fuck you!)

    Fortunately, you guys have an excellent portrayal of Ronnie Kray on film, in the form of Uco from THE RAID 2! Yep, I can’t imagine that Uco wasn’t at least partly inspired by Ronnie Kray – the similarities between the two, both in terms of their story and also the physical transformation that both of them went through, are just too much. I don’t know how familiar Gareth Evans was with the Krays’ story, but he’s a British guy who makes gangster films; at the very least I imagine he’d know their story inside-out.

  4. I suppose if you’re still on a Kray streak, maybe check out the 1971 film VILLAIN starring Richard Burton. It’s apparently loosely based on the Krays except there’s only of them, with Burton playing a Ronnie surrogate named Vic Dakin. I don’t know if it’s really good or accurate but it is very entertaining, with some good early work by young Ian McShane and Joss Ackland.

    And I know it never made much of a dent in the public consciousness despite existing for about 20 years but the laserdisc format did issue THE KRAYS twice in the widescreen.

  5. I’d love to see a KRAY VS QUAY BROTHERS mash-up. Get on it, Internet.

  6. Is this film trying to draw a connection between the twins being surrounded by and protected by women, and their growing up to be psychopaths? Or is that just something I’m inferring from this review?

  7. It’s strong enough of a theme that it might be a point the movie is trying to make (something about no male role models), but it didn’t really come across that way to me. My guess would be that it’s just something they found interesting and unique about the story of the Krays.

  8. Alan Moore wrote a weird song about the Kray Twins, and the tv show Whitechapel did a good season on them.

  9. Man when I saw the trailer for the Tom Hardy one I said to myself “didn’t they make this movie already?” I remember seeing this so long ago when it came straight to video here in the US. But could barely recall most or it. This review makes it seem more Cronenbergian than I remembered it being.

    I think I should revisit this one on a double bill with NAKED LUNCH or something. I also wonder why none of these Kray movies featured Morrissey’s LAST OF THE FAMOUS INTERNATIONAL PLAYBOYS during the opening or end credits. Seems like a lost opportunity to me.

  10. Gary Kemp is now in Nick Mason’s band Saucerful of Secrets, playing old Pink Floyd songs. Here he is singing one of them, acquitting himself nicely on his twist on the original feel of “Green is the Colour”, from the soundtrack to the first movie the band did for Barbet Schroder (EXTREME MEASURES), MORE.

    Nick Mason's Saucerful Of Secrets - Green Is The Colour (Live At The Roundhouse)

    Nick Mason’s Saucerful Of Secrets Live At The Roundhouse available now at https://smarturl.it/NMSOS Watch the trailer for the blu-ray https://smarturl.it/NMS...

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