Film Review: Legend

Tom Hardy dazzles twice as London “gangster princes” the Kray twins in Brian Helgeland’s pulpy, far-from-dazzling crime biopic.
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By the time Legend starts, its real-life East End gangster twins Ronnie and Reggie Kray (Tom Hardy, each time) are already the toast of Swinging 1960s London. Brian Helgeland’s crime epic dispenses with any rise to power, presenting us with these men already hitting peak power. They swagger though town as though they were ten feet tall, mocking the hapless cops detailed to follow them, knowing that fear and the East End’s tribal loyalties will keep anybody from informing. There is nowhere for them and the film to go, in other words, but down. That the Krays’ long and spiraling collapse isn’t a painful ordeal has more to do with Hardy’s delicately attuned and broadly entertaining dueling portrayals than Helgeland’s strung-out and overblown story about their conflicts and Frances (Emily Browning), the woman trapped in their daydream fantasy of a life.

Having compromised its dramatic arc from the jump, Legend puts all its resources into spotlighting the tensions between Ronnie and Reggie and how they threaten to drag down their entire criminal organization. For this to work, the film requires Hardy to play the men as blood brothers with substantially the same worldview but utterly different ways of approaching it. In short: Reggie is the sane one, while Ronnie is the nutter. Reggie can slide poetically through the streets and nightclubs with Hardy’s usual boxer-like roll and convincingly charm a date into a kiss before the wine has even been poured. He is a gangster who shows up with flowers and a diamond ring after getting out of prison, a brass-knuckle brawler who likes the criminal lifestyle but doesn’t feel the need for so much violence. It’s a winning performance, but the sort of thing Hardy pulls off with little visible effort.

The true stunner is Hardy’s work as Ronnie. A pure paranoid schizophrenic with a penchant for bedding Italian or Greek boys (“I’m not prejudiced” about his bedmates’ ethnicities, he blurts to a speechless mobster), Ronnie begins the film in a mental institution and spends the rest of it proving that he should never have been allowed out. Hardy gives him an unnerving stare, a thick monotone and Frankenstein lurch that fillet the screen with tension. But Hardy still finds the sad almost-sweetness in Ronnie’s teetering, lonely madness—at least in between the moments where it erupts into brutal violence. Reggie wants to run their business as efficiently as possible and Ronnie can’t lose his childlike love for the life of a gangster—in one scene he acts less concerned over being outnumbered by some gangland rivals in a pub than by what he sees as their breaking the rules of a “proper shootout”—leaving them on a collision course.

Helgeland is so fully committed to the Krays’ blood-“bruvva” conflict (one would need a very sharp blade to cut through the East End accents here), he spends little time erecting any dramatic scaffolding around it. Frances’ role is primarily to hang adoringly on Reggie’s arm, occasionally express concern about Ronnie’s erratic behavior, and deliver ever so sweetly the purple prose of the narration that jumps in from time to time when the story needs a transition. This inability to dramatize the Krays’ criminal enterprises leaves a gaping hole in the story. Some vague rumblings are made about protection rackets, occasionally their numbers guy Leslie Payne (David Thewlis) makes noises about keeping things quiet, and Chazz Palminteri pops by a couple of times to propose cross-Atlantic criminal partnerships.

This is mostly window dressing, though. Not only does little about the Krays’ “Firm” make sense, Helgeland fails to illustrate how they were able to entrance the celebrities like Shirley Bassey and Joan Collins who loved hanging out in their cabarets and the tabloids who couldn’t stop reporting on the exploits of the East End kids made good in a bad way.

At first, this doesn’t matter much. Hardy’s Reggie is so winning and Ronnie so comically menacing that the thick, clunky melodrama and Reggie and Frances’ bubblegum-pop romance fail to get in the way. But once that balance is upset, though, the film loses its sense of outlaw fun and tries to become something to take seriously. The transition doesn’t work, leaving the darker final third of the film essentially orphaned. Legend is an energetic and sometimes quite likeable but still ungainly gangster film wrapped around two of the deftest performances to hit theatres this year.

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