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

Maybe he had one too many peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) (SPOILERS) The kind of movie that makes your average Tarantino knockoff look classy, 3000 Miles to Graceland is both aggressively unpleasant and acutely absent any virtues, either as a script or a stylistic exercise. The most baffling thing about it is how it attracted Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, particularly since both ought to have been extra choosy at this point, having toplined expensive bombs in the previous half decade that made them significantly less bankable names. And if you’re wondering how this managed to cost the $62m reported on Wiki, it didn’t; Franchise Pictures, one of the backers, was in the business of fraudulently inflating budgets .

We’re looking into a possible pattern of nationwide anti-Catholic hate crimes.

Vampires aka John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter limps less-than-boldly onward, his desiccated cadaver no longer attentive to the filmic basics of quality, taste, discernment, rhyme or reason. Apparently, he made his pre-penultimate picture to see if his enthusiasm for the process truly had drained away, and he only went and discovered he really enjoyed himself. It doesn’t show. Vampires is as flat, lifeless, shoddily shot, framed and edited as the majority of his ’90s output, only with a repellent veneer of macho bombast spread on top to boot.

I dreamed about a guy in a dirty red and green sweater.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) (SPOILERS) I first saw A Nightmare on Elm Street a little under a decade after its release, and I was distinctly underwhelmed five or so sequels and all the hype. Not that it didn’t have its moments, but there was an “It’ll do” quality that reflects most of the Wes Craven movies I’ve seen. Aside from the postmodern tease of A New Nightmare – like Last Action Hero , unfairly maligned – I’d never bothered with the rest of the series, in part because I’m just not that big a horror buff, but also because the rule that the first is usually the best in any series, irrespective of genre, tends to hold out more often than not. So now I’m finally getting round to them, and it seemed only fair to start by giving Freddy’s first another shot. My initial reaction holds true.

Remember. Decision. Consequence.

Day Break (2006) (SPOILERS) Day Break is the rare series that was lucky to get cancelled. And not in a mercy-killing way. It got to tell its story. Sure, apparently there were other stories. Other days to break. But would it have justified going there? Or would it have proved tantalising/reticent about the elusive reason its protagonist has to keep stirring and repeating? You bet it would. Offering occasional crumbs, and then, when it finally comes time to wrap things up, giving an explanation that satisfies no one/is a cop out/offers a hint at some nebulous existential mission better left to the viewer to conjure up on their own. Best that it didn’t even try to go there.

I must remind you that the scanning experience is usually a painful one.

Scanners (1981) (SPOILERS) David Cronenberg has made a career – albeit, he may have “matured” a little over the past few decades, so it is now somewhat less foregrounded – from sticking up for the less edifying notions of evolution and modern scientific thought. The idea that regress is, in fact, a form of progress, and unpropitious developments are less dead ends than a means to a state or states as yet unappreciated. He began this path with some squeam-worthy body horrors, before genre hopping to more explicit science fiction with Scanners , and with it, greater critical acclaim and a wider audience. And it remains a good movie, even as it suffers from an unprepossessing lead and rather fumbles the last furlong, cutting to the chase when a more measured, considered approach would have paid dividends.

You seem particularly triggered right now. Can you tell me what happened?

Trailers The Matrix Resurrections   The Matrix A woke n ? If nothing else, the arrival of The Matrix Resurrections trailer has yielded much retrospective back and forth on the extent to which the original trilogy shat the bed. That probably isn’t its most significant legacy, of course, in terms of a series that has informed, subconsciously or otherwise, intentionally or otherwise, much of the way in which twenty-first century conspiracy theory has been framed and discussed. It is however, uncontested that a first movie that was officially the “best thing ever”, that aesthetically and stylistically reinvigorated mainstream blockbuster cinema in a manner unseen again until Fury Road , squandered all that good will with astonishing speed by the time 2003 was over.

We got two honkies out there dressed like Hassidic diamond merchants.

The Blues Brothers (1980) (SPOILERS) I had limited awareness of John Belushi’s immense mythos before  The Blues Brothers arrived on retail video in the UK (so 1991?) My familiarity with SNL performers really began with Ghostbusters ’ release, which meant picking up the trail of Jake and Elwood was very much a retrospective deal. I knew Animal House , knew Belushi’s impact there, knew 1941 (the Jaws parody was the best bit), knew Wired was a biopic better avoided. But the minor renaissance he, and they, underwent in the UK in the early ’90s seemed to have been initiated by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, of all things; Everybody Needs Somebody was part of their That Sounds Good to Me medley, the first of their hits not to make No.1, and Everybody ’s subsequent single release then just missed the Top Ten. Perhaps it was this that hastened CIC/Universal to putting the comedy out on video. Had the movie done the rounds on UK TV in the 80s? If so, it managed to pass me by. Even bef

Maybe I’m a heel who hates guys who hate heels.

Crimewave (1985) (SPOILERS) A movie’s makers’ disowning it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s nothing of worth therein, just that they don’t find anything of worth in it. Or the whole process of making it too painful to contemplate. Sam Raimi’s had a few of those, experiencing traumas with Darkman a few years after Crimewave . But I, blissfully unaware of such issues, was bowled over by it when I caught it a few years after its release (I’d hazard it was BBC2’s American Wave 2 season in 1988). This was my first Sam Raimi movie, and I was instantly a fan of whoever it was managed to translate the energy and visual acumen of a cartoon to the realm of live action. The picture is not without its problems – and at least some of them directly correspond to why it’s so rueful for Raimi – but that initial flair I recognised still lifts it.

I admit it. I live in a highly excited state of overstimulation.

Videodrome (1983) (SPOILERS) I’m one of those who thinks Cronenberg’s version of Total Recall would have been much more satisfying than the one we got (which is pretty good, but flawed; I’m referring to the Arnie movie, of course, not the Farrell). The counter is that Videodrome makes a Cronenberg Philip K Dick adaptation largely redundant. It makes his later Existenz largely redundant too. Videodrome remains a strikingly potent achievement, taking the directors thematic obsessions to the next level, one as fixated on warping the mind as the body. Like many Cronenbergs, it isn’t quite there, but it exerts a hold on the viewer not dissimilar to the one slowly entwining its protagonist Max Renn (James Woods).

White nights getting to you?

Insomnia (2002) (SPOILERS) I’ve never been mad keen on Insomnia . It’s well made, well-acted, the screenplay is solid and it fits in neatly with Christopher Nolan’s abiding thematic interests, but it’s… There’s something entirely adequateabout it. It isn’t pushing any kind of envelope. It’s happy to be the genre-bound crime study it is and nothing more, something emphasised by Pacino’s umpteenth turn as an under-pressure cop.