Tom Hardy has two modes he handles exceptionally well – charming and unhinged – so the two lead roles in Legend are a perfect fit for him. He plays Ronnie and Reggie Kray, twin London gangsters who rose to notoriety in the 1960s. It is a strange dual performance: he disappears into the role of one twin, while relying on his star power for the other. His work is the best thing about Legend, since writer and director Brian Helgeland has formal missteps and does not develop the details of his world. Like many other gangster films, this one works best as a dark comedy, and Helgeland stumbles with the inevitable reckoning the Krays must face.
When we first meet Ronnie, he has just been released from a mental institution. He is the unhinged one – eager for violence, with eccentricities he does not care to explain – and he genuinely loves being a gangster. Reggie is the more even-keeled one, the sort of shrewd businessman who goes to meetings with brass knuckles just in case. The narrator is Frances (Emily Browning), Reggie’s girlfriend and eventual wife, and she explains/moralizes throughout the film as if she is doing a book report, not confiding in the audience. The Krays are already established when we meet them, attracting regular police surveillance, so their arc follows the transition from London’s working class East End to the city’s wealthier areas. They also consider alliance with American gangsters, represented here by Chazz Palminteri, except Ronnie’s unpredictability gets in the way.
It is interesting and a little fun to see elements of past Hardy roles in the Krays. His portrayal of Ronnie draws from The Dark Knight Rises and Bronson; with wide eyes and body language that suggests barely coiled rage, Ronnie is so intimidating it’s kind of funny. He also happens to be gay, and his frank discussions about his kinks are a kind of strategy to test potential colleagues/adversaries (it is worth noting that the Legend differentiates mental illness and homosexuality, while mainstream psychiatry at that time did not). Taron Egerton, the star of this year’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, also has terrific fun as Ronnie’s effeminate, quick-tempered lover and underling.
The Reggie character, on the other hand, is a callback to Inception and Wuthering Heights: he is charming to a point, although his relationship with Frances inevitably grows more frayed. There have been several past films where one actor portrayed twins – Adaptation and Dead Ringers comes immediately to mind – but what makes Legend unique is how it requires two distinct types of acting. It is not always a great performance, but it is a commanding one.
Legend is an episodic movie, one where the beats do not seem to add to a cohesive whole. The best scenes are often violent – there is an intense brawl in a bar, and a brutal bout between the brothers – and Hardy’s commitment to physical acting is part of their success. But for every brutal or clever moment, there are several that are taken from other, better gangster films: there is the obligatory wedding, the obligatory scene where the Krays make promises they know they will not keep, and the simmering tension among their underlings. Helgeland shoots the film strangely, with over-saturated light, as if he wants Legend to look more a Hollywood sound stage instead of swinging London. Also, some scenes with both Krays are shot clumsily, at least in terms of one Hardy acting against the other. Coupled with unimaginative song cues, Legend lacks the formal immersion that helped define the genre.
In comparison to their American counterparts, the Krays never really amounted to much. They ran several nightclubs, and were treated by elites with more tolerance than respect. That makes the title Legend somewhat ironic, and the film’s final scenes only deepen that divide. Reggie and Ronnie both murder other gangsters in cold blood, with plenty of witnesses, and Helgeland does not shy away from their brutality. In other words, there were never quite legends, even their own minds, since they spent the majority of their lives in prison. Gangster films always tow a fine line between celebrating their heroes, and admonishing them. Legend seemingly does not understand where that line is supposed to be, and as a result feels unfinished.