Skip to main content

I love London. It's so wonderfully dirty.

The Krays
(1990)

(SPOILERS) There might be a superior Krays movie to be made by distilling the best elements of The Krays and Legend into one new picture, but it would still be lacking when it comes to what made them infamous; their criminal enterprise itself. Peter Medak’s film of Philip Ridley’s screenplay has no time for the glossy vision of ‘60s London Brian Helgeland pursues, and makes great capital from emphasising the twins’ relationship with their mother (Billie Whitelaw). It also has more of a sense of “what led to this”, rudimentary as it is, rather than introducing us to the brothers fully formed. What it doesn’t have, however, is Tom Hardy.


Which isn’t to say there aren’t good things resulting from the casting of Martin (Reggie) and Gary (Ronnie) Kemp. No matter how good Hardy is (and he’s very good), there’s always a sense that his playing both brothers is a gimmick, one that further undermines the reality of Helgeland’s already superficial and swanky East End. You can get away with that sort of thing in your classic twin movie, as the absurdity of the doppelganger is often key to the plot. It might be argued that’s part and parcel of the “Legend” title, an interrogation of where myth and reality meet. If so, Helgeland fails spectacularly.


With the Kemps, they may not be in Hardy’s league as performers, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t mostly serviceable. What they do have, and this can’t be under-emphasised, is the natural facility of being actual brothers. It informs their scenes, and means there’s a shorthand that needs no overstatement (something Helgeland is repeatedly guilty of). On a more practical level too, when they’re both in a scene together they’re both in a scene together, and the viewer doesn’t start thinking about trick shots or become distracted from the moment.


The picture, which can be found on YouTube, misses a number of elements that Legend at least picks up the slack on (although Legend frustratingly grasps pieces of plot and never expands them enough to satisfy). So we don’t have Reggie’s stint in prison. Most crucially, there’s no Leslie Payne (and so one of the sources of conflict between the brothers is diffused) and so there train of events leading to the murder of Jack The Hat McVitie (a magnificently seedy, derelict Tom Bell) is absent. We see nothing of the police investigation, and rather substantially Lord Boothby also gets no attention. This means that, when the murders of McVitie and George Cornell (Steven Berkoff) occur, its positioned as something of a “the brothers clean house moment” (the premeditated nature of McVitie’s demise is more accurate than in Legend, while both pictures make a point of feeding Reggie’s behaviour into the recent suicide – or was it – of Frances).


As noted though, both pictures are frustratingly low on the brothers’ crime and the causes of the brothers’ crime. The Krays was released in the same year as Goodfellas, and Legend is clearly (partly) influenced by Scorsese’s classic, but neither is able to work that kind of smoothly confident depiction of the ins and outs of the gangster trade into its fabric. We have little idea of how widely their empire stretches, what they own, what they do, and how they operate. The odd scene of them climbing out the back of a van and firing machine guns in a bar isn’t enough, nor is the meeting with their American backers (this one doesn’t have Chazz Palminteri, or Ronnie’s humorous confessional, but it scores for the downright peculiarity of the mobster presenting Ronnie with a gold snake while all he has in return is a framed photo of the extended Kray family).


The violence in the picture is more starkly effective than in Helgeland’s movie. You wouldn’t call Legend exactly sanitised, but it lacks real impact; even the murder of Jack “The Hat” seems to have been built around the reactions of the (invented) onlookers and the pay-off line to Ronnie. Peter Medak has attacked most genres as a director, with varying degrees of success (he’s nearly 80 and still working, recently contributing to Hannibal). The year after The Krays he depicted another famous criminal case, that of Derek Bentley in Let Him Have It and went on to contribute to Homicide: Life on the Street. He has directed lightweight TV fare like Hart to Hart and fantasy such as The Twilight Zone and Carnivale. I think his dalliances with horror (The Changeling, the ill-met Species II) might be most informing of how he depicts the criminal world, though. He isn’t willing to soft pedal underworld behaviour, or give it a sheen the way Helgeland does. It’s serious, brutal unpleasantness, and one of the first things we see the adult brothers do is etch out a Chelsea Smile, something Helgeland ignores completely.


Ridley (well-known as an idiosyncratic director in his own right; it might have been interesting to see his movie of his own script, one with more than enough offbeat imagery as it is, from monochrome swans to crocodiles to snakes) and Medak are also big on the weird duality between the brothers, lending their acts a strangely sinister “evil twins” vibe (there’s also a distracting cameo from Stephen “Blakey” Lewis during this section). With early scenes where they answer in unison in class, this could be leading to a supernatural rather than a crime flick. Michael Kamen’s score is particularly effective in this regard, steering events of kilter, as if the brothers’ reality is constantly spiralling from their grasp.


Katie Hardie’s Frances isn’t central to the movie in the same way as Emily Browning in Legend, but if anything her sad plight is the more effective for not being privy to her inner thoughts. The claustrophobia of the prison she enters when she marries Reggie is palpable. There’s none of the triteness and sentimentalising of Helegland, and instead we feel the crushing terror of someone divested of any freewill or personality. Legend depicts Frances’ isolation through the present of a car that lies abandoned because Reggie never teaches her to drive. The Krays gives us a more potent scene where Reggie buys her dresses for each day of the year. She protests that she likes to do her own shopping to which Reggie cheerfully but chillingly responds ”It’s not as if you’ve go any money of your own, is it?


Ronnie’s relationship with/antagonism towards Frances is marginalised, but there’s a fine minimalist stroke at the outset that speaks more loudly than any amount of heavy-handed dialogue. The first time Reggie meets Frances, Ronnie sees them across the club. Becoming enraged, he picks a fight with a patron who is quickly on the receiving end of a Chelsea Smile (“I’m going to make you laugh for the rest of your life”).


The major difference, though, is the way Ridley makes the devoted matriarchy of the brothers’ existence central (older brother Charlie also gets a look in, unilike in Legend). Whitelaw is quite superb as Violet Kray, steely, doting and no-nonsense. She isn’t dismissive of Frances the way Violet is in Legend, but it’s completely clear where her daughter-in-law stands in importance. Legend really misses not having the boys holding their meetings at their mother’s house, with the informality of her tea and biscuits and presiding naturalism towards the gang bosses who just happen to be her offspring. It was a mistake for Helgeleand to diminish Violet’s role, presumably as a response to potential comparisons with this picture.


That said, there probably is too much indulgence the family at the expense of other elements. What we have would work if the picture lasted another hour, but as noted, there’s a sense the “life” gets short shrift. Violet’s strength is emblazoned, from removing Ronnie from hospital when he has diphtheria, to her announcement, in response to their National Service, “No one takes my boys away from me”. The natural culmination of this sees useless husband Charlie (Alfred Lynch) threaten her and the boys rising as one either side of their mum. Charlie backs off.


But the emphasis on “Men, they know nothing”, while yielding individually powerful moments is more the heavy-handed tack one would expect from Helgeland. The boys’ young life is amid a household of women (and Reggie’s White Cliffs honeymoon is interrupted by the death of one of these nurturers). There’s a powerful scene – the sort of thing that could easily have ended up on the cutting room floor as superfluous – where Rose (Susan, sister of Mick, Fleetwood) recounts the horrors of the Blitz (seen earlier for the kids as a magical time of tales of their granddad in the Underground recounting tales of Jack the Ripper), and the torments of men; “Bullets and dead babies” before recalling a protracted labour where she had to “cut the baby’s head off to save the mother’s life”, who then died anyway.


The gangland aspect is best personified by Steven Berkoff’s Cornell, who is given significantly more screen time than Shane Attwooll’s equivalent in Legend. Just by the mere fact of being Berkoff he has more presence (he’s also shot through the pimple on his forehead, making it something of a bizarre target).  Berkoff’s Cornell is a worthy loud-mouthed foe, mocking and undaunted even in the face of a gun pointed at his head. And, while Sam Spruell is very strong in Legend, Bell’s degraded McVitie is conjured with vile disarray that informs indifference to his demise; the scene in which he gets annoyed with his girlfriend for calling him bald and pushes her out of a moving car (her back is broken) is a concise a piece of character work as we need.


Reggie and Ronnie here are more symbiotic than in Legend, where Hardy employs – in particular with the amusingly exaggerated Ronnie – various actorly extravagances to distinguish them. The question arising there, though, is how they ever amounted to anything when it seemed Ronnie constantly put spanners in the works. Here, his psychosis is less invasive, so their relationship is more intimate. Consequently, it’s more believable when he goads his brother to finish off McVitie. Helgeland achieves dramatic conflict between the two, but it’s at the cost of seeing them as a united force to be reckoned with.


The picture ends, appropriately to its theme (is there a subtext here that the non-traditional family unit yields psychopaths?), has the brothers attend Violet’s 1982 funeral in handcuffs. It lends The Krays a sense of completeness and purpose Legend lacks (that picture has to carry on after it’s main female character has died). In general, The Krays is a more successful picture than Legend, although it is nevertheless respectable rather than remarkable, with the odd narrative or visual twist that stands out.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

Two hundred thousand pounds, for this outstanding example of British pulchritude and learning.

The Avengers 4.18: The Girl From Auntie
I’ve mentioned that a few of these episodes have changed in my appreciation since I last watched the series, and The Girl from Auntie constitutes a very pronounced uptick. Indeed, I don’t know how I failed to rate highly the estimable Liz Fraser filling in for Diana Rigg – mostly absent, on holiday –for the proceedings (taking a not dissimilar amateur impostor-cum-sidekick role to Fenella Fielding in the earlier The Charmers). I could watch Fraser all day, and it’s only a shame this was her single appearance in the show.

By Jove, the natives are restless tonight.

The Avengers 4.17: Small Game for Big Hunters
I wonder if Death at Bargain Prices’ camping scene, suggestive of an exotic clime but based in a department store, was an inspiration for Small Game For Big Hunters’ more protracted excursion to the African country of Kalaya… in Hertfordshire. Gerry O’Hara, in his second of two episodes for the show again delivers on the atmosphere, making the most of Philip Levene’s teleplay.

Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.5: Kidnapped  (aka The Mysterious Stranger)
Kidnapped continues the saga of Chuffnell Hall. Having said of 2.4 that the best Wodehouse adaptations tend to stick closely to the text, this one is an exception that proves the rule, diverging significantly yet still scoring with its highly preposterous additions.

Jeeves: Tis old boggy. He be abroad tonight. He be heading for the railway station.
Gone are many of the imbroglios involving Stoker and Glossop (the estimable Roger Brierley), including the contesting of the former’s uncle’s will. Also gone, sadly, is the inebriated Brinkley throwing potatoes at Stoker, which surely would have been enormous fun. Instead, we concentrate on Bertie being locked aboard Stoker’s yacht in order to secure his marriage to Pauline (as per the novel), Chuffy tailing Pauline in disguise (so there’s a different/additional reason for Stoker to believe Bertie and she spent the night together, this time at a pub en route to Chufnell Hall) and …

I think we’ve returned to Eden. Surely this is how the World once was in the beginning of time.

1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)
Ridley Scott’s first historical epic (The Duellists was his first historical, and his first feature, but hardly an epic) is also one of his least remembered films. It bombed at the box office (as did the year’s other attempted cash-ins on the discovery of America, including Superman: The Movie producers the Salkinds’ Christopher Columbus: The Discovery) and met with a less than rapturous response from critics. Such shunning is undeserved, as 1492: Conquest of Paradise is a richer and more thought-provoking experience than both the avowedly lowbrow Gladiator and the re-evaluated-but-still-so-so director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven. It may stand guilty of presenting an overly sympathetic portrait of Columbus, but it isn’t shy about pressing a critical stance on his legacy.

Sanchez: The truth is, that he now presides over a state of chaos, of degradation, and of madness. From the beginning, Columbus proved himself completely incapable of ruling these islands…

This is bad. Bad for movie stars everywhere.

Trailers Hail, Caesar!
The Coen Brothers’ broader comedies tend to get a mixed response from critics, who prefer their blacker, more caustic affairs (A Serious Man, Barton Fink, Inside Llewyn Davis). Probably only Raising Arizona and O Brother, Where Art Thou? have been unreservedly clutched to bosoms, so it remains to be seen how Hail, Caesar! fares. The trailer shows it off as big, bold, goofy, shamelessly cheerful and – something that always goes down well with awards ceremonies – down with taking affectionate swipes at Tinseltown. Seeing as how the unabashedly cartoonish The Grand Budapest Hotel swung a host of Oscar nominations (and a couple of wins), I wouldn’t put anything out of the question. Also, as O Brother proved, punctuation marks in titles are a guarantee of acclaim.

I’m an easy sell for Coens fare, though. Burn After Reading is very funny, particularly John Malkovich’s endlessly expressive swearing. Intolerable Cruelty makes me laugh a lot, particularly Clooney’s double t…

Thank you for your co-operation.

Robocop (1987)
Robocop is one of a select group of action movies I watched far too many times during my teenage years. One can over-indulge in the good things, and pallor can be lost through over-familiarity. It’s certainly the case that Paul Verhoeven’s US breakthrough wears its limited resources on its battered metal-plated chest and, in its “Director’s Cut” form at least, occasionally over-indulges his enthusiastic lack of restraint. Yet its shortcomings are minor ones. It remains stylistically impressive and thematically as a sharp as a whistle. This year’s remake may have megabucks and slickness on its side but there is no vision, either in the writing or direction. The lack of focus kills any chance of longevity. Verhoeven knows exactly the film he’s making, moulded to fit his idiosyncratic foibles. It might not be his best executed, but in terms of substance, as he recognises, it is assuredly his best US movie. Alas, given the way he’s been unceremoniously ditched by Hollywood, i…