The story of the 1960s gangsters the Kray twins doesn’t have much to add to the genre, but it provides a chance to see the great actor Tom Hardy at work
Starring: Tom Hardy, Emily Browning
Directed by: Brian Helgeland
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Running time: 131 minutes
By Jay Stone
Fans of the English actor Tom Hardy — and we are a growing cohort — will be delighted with Legend, an otherwise marginal gangster movie about a couple of British thugs who made a big splash in London in the 1960s. They were Ronnie and Reggie Kray, a couple of mismatched twins: Reggie was one of those charming sociopaths who parlayed his good looks, taste for violence, and relentless greed into a charismatic persona that represents all we love and admire about movie gangsters, while Ronnie was a goggle-eyed psychopath, a schizophrenic thug whose sadistic unpredictability gives Legend what passes for comic relief.
Hardy plays both of them, turning Legend into a showcase for his acting skills and a neatly packaged compendium of his range. Otherwise, you might have to go out and rent, say, Bronson (Hardy as a — hmm — psychopathic thug) or The Drop (Hardy as psychopathic thug disguised as mild-mannered bartender), and then Locke (Hardy as a building contractor trying to help an old girlfriend) to get a sense of what this man can do.
It’s a study in performance, helped along by today’s computer technology. Unlike other twin stories, like Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap, Legend benefits from technical advances that allow the Krays to appear in the same frame, and even have fistfights with one another. It also allows us to appreciate Hardy’s skill as a creator of screen characters: Ronnie’s frightening squint, for instance, or Reggie’s aggressive walk forward into the West End London neighborhoods he rules, the cordial underworld chief greeting his public with just the slightest hint, in the carriage of his shoulders, of his taste for violence.
Aside from all that — and it’s not inconsiderable — there doesn’t seem to be much point to Legend. The story of the Krays has been told before (Legend is based on a book about the twins by John Pearson), and aside from the eccentric details, it doesn’t add much to gangster lore. Like Black Mass, the recent Johnny Depp film about Boston gangster Whitey Bulger, it feels beside the point. Why bother with a Krays film now, 60 years later?
Whatever the reason, the movie looks pretty good. It was directed by Brian Helgeland — who honed his gangster skills as the writer of L.A. Confidential, which featured Russell Crowe as another of life’s winning brutes — and the re-creation of the nightclubs of swinging London, the cool cars and ring-a-ding casinos give Legend the sheen of authenticity. The story is told by Francis Shea (Emily Browning), a neighbourhood woman who was seduced by Reggie’s little-boy charms, not to mention those shoulders, and through her eyes we see moral quagmire into which gangster films drop us: we admire the bad guys, and then, after being forced to watch a hurricane of bloody violence, have to reconsider both the bad guys and the admiration.
The Krays are set up against an earnest cop named Nipper Read (Christopher Ecclestone) who is not half as interesting: the good guys in these films are always a step behind, sort of gangsters manqués who don’t have the killer instinct, or the freedom, to compete.
Legend follows the Kray career from small-time hoods to the rulers of London underworld, but it’s something of a tangled course in which competitors are thrown in and summarily bashed in the head, stabbed to death or otherwise dispatched in gruesome manner. As in many stories about British malfeasance, politicians are dragged into the story: what would an English crime tale be without some MPs getting caught with their hands in the till?
There’s a lot familiar here as well: Helgeland quotes extensively from the many gangster movies that came before (when Reggie takes Francis to a nightclub for a date, the long tracking shot is a tribute to Martin Scorsese’s bravura original in Goodfellas), and there’s even an emissary from the U.S. (Chazz Palminteri) to add a little Mafia colour to the mix. His happy astonishment when Reggie matter-of-factly announces that he is a homosexual —one of the twists in the tale — provides a lighter moment. Reggie’s candor is one of his few endearing characteristics.
Mostly, though, you find yourself watching to see how the filmmakers did it, and then how Hardy does it. The special effects are seamless, and so is the actor.
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