The most infuriating thing about Legend is that Tom Hardy’s fascinating dual performance as twin cockney gangsters Reggie and Ronnie Kray is left floundering in a sea of mediocrity. It’s a real shame; although Hardy often takes things way over the top in both roles (Reggie’s the charming, good-looking ex-boxer, Ronnie’s the insane walking liability) his incredibly magnetic presence and overtly physical acting ability ensures that it’s difficult to take your eyes off him, whichever brother happens to be on screen (and yes, as you’d expect there are plenty of scenes in which they both appear at the same time, which can feel a little gimmicky). Although I don’t expect the actor to win awards for his work here it’s certainly another fine entry for his CV: Hardy carries this film and he is instantly missed whenever the camera or the action veers away from him.
Writer-director Brian Helgeland certainly has pedigree, most notably with regard to his adapted screenplays for LA Confidential and Mystic River, but this feels very much like an outsider’s view of London in the 1960s, despite the fact John Pearson’s book The Profession Of Violence has been used as source material. There’s a reliance on a number of exterior and interior studio sets, which is understandable given the way that London’s landscape has changed in the interim, but a few of the outdoor scenes are overpopulated with extras (one shot in a market in particular, which I presume is supposed to be Roman Road or Petticoat Lane, and an unfamiliar Soho street that’s used on a few occasions), while there’s only a half-hearted attempt to depict the city as a changing, modernising hub: much is made of Reggie’s fondness for socialising in his own nightclubs, and David Bailey – the photographer whose pictures of the Krays turned them into national celebrities, of sorts – briefly appears in the story, but there isn’t enough of a sense of the swinging sixties that enthralled the twins and very little appreciation that London’s east end changed considerably before and during the decade, with many migrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh in particular moving into the area. Production company Working Title were famously criticised for ‘whitewashing’ the Richard Curtis rom-com Notting Hill, and although the east end was still predominantly white in the 1960s this film still feels curiously misleading. I dare say the kind of pubs the Krays owned and frequented may not have been particularly welcoming to those arriving from the Indian sub-continent or elsewhere, so it’s no surprise such scenes only feature white British actors, but equally it’s not as if someone flipped a switch a decade later and the surrounding streets became multicultural overnight.
We begin around the turn of the decade, with Ronnie in prison and Reggie wooing future wife Frankie (Emily Browning). At this point in time the brothers have established a hold over the criminal operations of east London, and we see them quickly and aggressively expand into the south and centre, once rival Charlie Richardson (Paul Bettany delivering an Archetypal British Gangster Film Performance) is out of the way. Reggie is perhaps more interested in legitimate nightclub businesses, while the unstable, psychotic Ronnie (once released) is driven by racketeering, attracted to its inherent unpredictability and violence; both brothers have spells in prison, but initially these are short and there’s always one of them around to oversee operations. Tailing the pair throughout the decade is Detective Superintendent Leonard ‘Nipper’ Read (Christopher Eccleston), a character who is unfortunately dropped for an hour or so of the running time, while there are also supporting roles for Chazz Palminteri (Mafia Don Angelo Bruno), David Thewlis (the twins’ business manager) and Taron Edgerton (Ronnie’s lover ‘Mad Teddy’ Smith).
Many of the British gangster tropes are present and correct in Legend: the geezers meeting in smoky, dimly-lit pubs, the sporadic acts of violence (though, in typically British style, only one bullet is fired in the entire film), the self-made men who have worked their way up from humble beginnings, and so on, but it must be said that the real-life Krays provided the template for all those London-centric gangster films in the first place (they were lovable rogues, everyone loved them, they loved each other, they loved their mum, they loved looking after their own, etc. etc.). It’s disappointing, though, that Helgeland seems to be using the early films of Guy Ritchie and Nick Love as a guide, and there are some poor choices here that other filmmakers would simply not make: music recorded much later by American acts like The Meters is employed, for example, supposedly because it sounds cool, but it’s the kind of thing Ritchie was doing when he made Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels; it seemed incongruous then, but now it’s also a hackneyed device. The worst decision of all is the inclusion of sporadic narration by Browning that is both poorly written and wholly unconvincing.
Still, there’s a smattering of absurdly funny moments and it’s worth seeing for Hardy’s twin performances alone, while the actor’s dual turn makes for an interesting comparison with the toned-down gangsters portrayed by Gary and Martin Kemp in the earlier Peter Medak film The Krays. Against your better judgement you may find yourself laughing at the awkward, uncomfortable utterances of the lock-jawed, boggle-eyed Ronnie, or even enjoying the sudden explosions of violence: at one point the two brothers go head-to-head in a scrap that is simultaneously appalling, idiotic, funny and bone-crunching. Throughout Hardy shows his considerable talent by lifting the film above the mass of tired British gangster movies that have polluted both cinemas and supermarket aisles during the past twenty years, but I hasten to add that Legend is only just above them and it dutifully (necessarily) plods through the usual rise-and-fall playbook.
Directed by: Brian Helgeland.
Written by: Brian Helgeland. Based on The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins by John Pearson.
Starring: Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, David Thewlis, Christopher Eccleston, Taron Edgerton, Chazz Palminteri, Colin Morgan, Paul Bettany.
Cinematography: Dick Pope.
Editing: Peter McNulty.
Music: Carter Burwell, Various.
Running Time: 131 minutes.