The Krays has one of the most gruesomely violent scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie. Ronnie Kray (Gary Kemp) — one of the two real-life twins who dominated London’s underworld during the ’60s — has just seen his brother Reggie (Martin Kemp) chat up a young woman during a party at their nightclub. This makes Ronnie livid with jealousy. The two brothers aren’t just close. They’re like extensions of the same person, and Ronnie can’t stand the idea of anyone coming between them. But since he loves his brother like he loves himself, he decides to take out his feelings on the nearest stranger.
Goading the fellow into a fight, he gets him into the club’s back alley. For a moment, things seem to calm down. And then, just when you think there isn’t going to be any violence, Ronnie produces a knife — no, it’s a sword — and tells the guy he’s going to give him a permanent smile. Placing the sword horizontally against the poor guy’s mouth, he proceeds to drag it sideways, slowly and deliberately across the front of his face, like a lethal toothbrush.
What makes this scene dramatically effective, aside from the obvious sensationalism, is the way Gary Kemp plays Ronnie. He makes the character’s psychopathic brutality absolutely believable — he’s as realistic in his rage as Freddy Krueger is fake. It’s not just that the act is horrifying, but that we can believe Ronnie enjoyed doing it.
Gary and Martin Kemp are, in fact, brothers (they have matching mono-brows), and both are members of the British pop group Spandau Ballet. The idea of casting these two as the vicious Krays is a bit of a sly joke, since Spandau Ballet is known for top-40 romanticism — they’re the ones who had the dreamy 1983 hit ”True.” What makes the novelty casting a triumph is that the Kemps are magnetic actors.
Gary has the showier role. With his suave simian stare, he plays the domineering, homosexual Ronnie as a fearless punk prince, a man who’s nothing but the sum of his dark drives. Martin, by contrast, is playing the ”normal” Kray. Reggie is quieter than Ronnie, he’s not nearly as mean, and he even gets married and tries to fashion some semblance of a domestic life. But that soon falls apart, as it becomes clear that Reggie shares Ronnie’s icy narcissism. Martin Kemp’s performance is frightening in a different way from his brother’s. Blandly handsome (he resembles actor Hart Bochner), he makes Reggie’s loutishness seem creepily casual.
There’s an echo of Leopold and Loeb in the saga of the Kray brothers — symbiotic criminals who, in their twinship, found a horrific strength and power. Yet The Krays is far from a knockout gangster movie. Opting for an ”impressionistic” approach, veteran director Peter Medak (The Ruling Class) mixes horror and garish comedy without really evoking the drama of the Krays’ story. His absurdist touch works well in the scenes with the brothers and their blustery mum (Billie Whitelaw), to whom they’re devoted; the two men are like latter-day versions of James Cagney’s mother-fixated Cody Jarrett in White Heat. But we never get any sense of how the brothers build their empire, or of how the various supporting characters fit into their lives. Telling this story in a more straightforward fashion would have been far more satisfying. Still, the Kemps are something to see. B