Tom Hardy fans, rejoice: Brian Helgeland’s Legend stars the pouty-lipped actor—in not one, but two roles, acting with himself. Charting a decade of London violence propagated by the dangerous symbiotic relationship between Kray twins Reggie (Hardy) and Ronnie (also Hardy), this Swinging ’60s biopic is most interesting not as a period piece, but as an exploration of one actor’s Jekyll and Hyde persona. In playing both brothers—the vulgar, psychologically unstable Ronnie, and the suave, handsome Reggie—Hardy gets to split himself open for the world to see, simultaneously indulging in the intense, volatile character work that’s made him beloved of critics while also being the glamorous movie star leading man Hollywood has been trying to position him as for years.
Past dissecting Hardy the public image, as a biography of two real-life subjects, Legend is less satisfying. Story-wise, it’s a TV movie-ish rundown of the Krays’ criminal heyday running clubs, schooling slags, battling rival gangs and scrapping amongst themselves over petty brotherly disputes. An ear for the idiosyncrasies of the East End dialect aside, Helgeland’s dialogue is largely flat and unmemorable—not to mention frustratingly broad whenever he tries for humor—while the film on the whole often feels like a series of anecdotes loosely strung together by Reggie’s wife—and the film’s narrator—Frances (Emily Browning). Helgeland’s journeyman direction and his episodic script, which begins to grow tiresome around the third or fourth scene of Ronnie brutally losing his cool, seem primarily to blame for the slog this film can be. Of course, the period trappings are subtly effective, but they’re lazily bolstered by a soundtrack made for every ’60s movie ever, a soundtrack which also features—oh God—Welsh, one-time pop superstar Duffy, who shows up in the film as a popular lounge singer to give an idea of how out-of-touch the man behind this project is.
The scene in which the gangster siblings fight hell-for-leather in one of their own bars is Legend’s best, partly because Hardy is routinely impressive, and partly because in the presence of these two characters—just them—is where the film always makes the most effort. (The interplay between Hardy and Hardy is, FYI, realized through a seamless combination of effects and editing.) Reportedly Hardy only agreed to make the film on the condition that he could play both Krays, and the film in turn has a whiff of an actor’s vanity project about it: He surely can’t have seen much in the script beyond an opportunity to show off his ability to beat the tricky challenge.
In fact, it would seem that almost all of Helgeland’s effort went into getting his two lead characters right, leaving little time to concentrate on much else. It’s troubling: Legend has a perverse fascination with the Krays that cinema (and indeed the UK) can’t seem to shake. Despite the many despicable deeds Helgeland shows the Krays committing, Legend—like Peter Medak’s The Krays before it—still can’t help but idolize them as self-made men and anti-authoritarian rebels. It’s not just problematic that Helgeland cast a swoonsome, swaggering pretty boy as the pair: he makes the Krays the only interesting, well-rounded characters in the movie.
There should be sympathy for Frances, played with wide-eyed lifelessness by Browning, but the film doesn’t ask for your investment in her story (oddly, considering it’s told from her perspective). She is the one on the end of mental and physical abuse, but it’s still her husband who’s the ostensible hero. Legend just wants you to gawp lovingly at the Krays, with their aw-shucks, C-bomb-laden East London patter and cuddly propensity for ultra-violence. Forget everyone else—which should be easy. (Paul Bettany, Christopher Eccleston, David Thewlis, Taron Egerton: Try afterwards to even remember what their characters’ names are, never mind what their function was.)
Legend’s obsession with its two lead subjects is still good news for fully paid-up members of the cult of Tom Hardy. As expected, Hollywood’s finest leading man of the moment performs well, doing a cockney-flavored variation of Brando’s streetwise knucklehead for Reggie, a less cartoonish take on his Peaky Blinders character (the similarly psychotic Alfie Solomons) for Ron. Hardy’s one of a rare group of actors who can make utter dreck worthwhile through virtue of his magnetic talent alone.
Director: Brian Helgeland
Writer: Brian Helgeland
Starring: Tom Hardy, Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, Paul Bettany, Christopher Eccleston, David Thewlis, Taron Egerton
Release Date: November 20, 2015