Watching Tom Hardy playing twin British Gangsters (one straight, one gay) in 1960’s London is such a unique premise that Legend had me hooked from the start. The good news: Hardy manages to create two of the most distinct/memorable characters I’ve seen in 2015. He makes some bold choices in his characterization of the Kray brothers that enriches Legend, the story of the Kray Twins. The bad news: Legend manages to be quite stagnant for long stretches to the point where it becomes derivative.
The film is based on the brothers, who weren’t much as criminals in the 1960’s, but truly made a name for themselves based on who they were seen with in public (they were celebrity mobsters). The telling of their story is simplistic, which is saved somewhat by the complex performance given by Hardy. Early on, Reggie falls for Frances Shea (Emily Browning). She narrates the story by a voiceover that is, most of the time, simply not needed. Legend tries in vain to make this story center around Frances (which is in contrast to The Krays which centers around the boys relationship with their mother) but all this effort does is distract from any importance Frances has in the overall story. Frances wants to leave, to find something better, but Reggie tells her the East End is fine. While this is transpiring, Reggie and Ronnie are also conspiring to take over the underground crime world and the club scene in London as well.
At times, Legend just becomes too predictable. For example, the musical selection; any movie that uses “Chapel of Love” to move right into a wedding scene isn’t really striving for any sort of originality. Part of what makes Goodfellas and The Godfather such timeless classics in the genre are the colorful moral ambiguities or codes of conduct exhibited by the gangsters. Even though this story is about Reggie and Ronnie Kray, two of the most notorious gangsters in London’s seedy underworld history, the narrative does little to get that point across to the audience. If anything the narrative makes Reggie and Ronnie Kray look like a couple of thugs from the East End of London.
It’s remarkable, thanks to the miracle of modern-day film and the smart use of a body double, Hardy is given the platform to play these two notorious gangsters. What was striking is how seamless scenes with both of the Kray brothers were (it basically defies logic). Hardy’s versatility is on display in Legend, as we believe that Reggie and Ronnie are two very different people right down to the walk and the cadence of their voices. Hardy loses himself in both roles and out comes two men who have their sights set on dominating London. This may seem like it’s no big deal, playing two roles like this since it’s been done before. Way back in the 80s Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin did it in Big Business. Armie Hammer in The Social Network. The best example might be Jeremy Irons in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers. But to say that what those three did was even in the same ballpark as what Tom Hardy does in Legend is an oversimplification. Hardy creates two characters that are so distinct of one another it would be easy to believe these were two actors.
Reggie Kray looks like a ripped Paul Newman: a handsome, stylish shiester who favors flashy jewelry and uses his cigarette as more of a prop than anything else. Reggie’s twin Ronnie is of course the same age, but everyone treats him as if he’s the unpredictable, odd younger brother. In Legend, Ronnie is quite open about his homosexuality, and even most gangsters seem to accept it. Ronnie’s issues don’t stem from being a homosexual, they stem from being mentally ill and when he forgets his medicine; he’s a complete psychopath.
It’s confusing why director Brian Helgeland (Payback) would waste the bold stroke of casting Hardy as twin gangsters by building a mundane film around him. They had the hook, but squandered any avenue for creativity. Neglecting better source material takes away from the overall quality of the Legend.
Despite the flaws in Legend, Tom Hardy’s performance in the movie is reason alone to see it. It’s not difficult to understand why the movie is called Legend (Because the Kray brothers were considered legends in the London crime scene), but the title really doesn’t fit the finished product. The audience never gets to witness the Kray brothers rise to legendary status but they do get to see a couple of thugs make an impact in London.