In Legend, Tom Hardy stars in a dual performance as Reggie and Ronnie Kray, twin brothers and nightclub owners who bumped elbows with celebrities and were among the UK’s most infamous gangsters during the 1950s and 60s.
The Kray brothers already warranted their own movie, 1991’s The Krays from director Peter Medak, which starred real-life brothers (and Spandau Ballet rockers) Martin and Gary Kemp as the titular twins. That film told their story sufficiently, though it was cold and aloof and a little flat dramatically.
Legend, written and directed by Brian Helgeland (Payback, 42) from John Pearson’s 1972 book The Profession of Violence, has exactly the same issues – along another one, a wildly inconsistent tone that uneasily wavers between lighthearted comedy, gruesome over-the top violence, and melancholic dramatics.
Maybe there’s something in the Krays’ story that doesn’t translate to a traditional narrative, but neither film fares well next to the best British gangster films (The Long Good Friday, Sexy Beast), or US mafia movies like Goodfellas, which Legend invokes with the presence of Chazz Palmenteri as real-life mobster Angelo Bruno.
But Legend has something that The Krays didn’t: Hardy’s incredible performance(s) in the leading roles. His grounded turn as the vaguely-likable Reggie Kray anchors the film, but his seething portrayal as the mad-dog psychopath Ronnie elevates it into being something special.
It isn’t just Hardy, either, but the technical prowess that allowed a single actor to take on both roles that allows his performances to soar. Throughout the entire film, I never questioned the fact that both Krays were played by the same person, even though they share (or seem to share) the screen throughout most of the scenes in the movie.
The film’s strong performances don’t stop with Hardy. Standouts among the Kray’s associates include David Thewlis as Leslie Payne, one of the few men to stand up to Ronnie throughout the course of the film, Taron Egerton (Kingsman: The Secret Service) as Ronnie’s right-hand man (and presumed lover), and Sam Spruell as the inept Jack McVitie, whose fate the Krays are ultimately tied to.
Also good: Christopher Eccleston as the policeman tailing the Kray brothers throughout the years, Jane Wood as their doting mother, and Paul Bettany, who appears briefly but memorably as a rival gangster.
The narrative, meanwhile, doesn’t live up to the film’s performances. Instead of focusing on the Kray’s criminal activities, the film is framed by Reggie Kray’s relationship with Frances Shea (Emily Browning), who also narrates the film. There isn’t much arc to their story, and those familiar with the real-life events may be especially disinterested in the film’s protracted climax.
The romance angle does lead to one dynamite scene, however: the marriage of Reggie and Frances, which culminates in a confrontation between Ronald and Frances’ mother (Tara Fitzgerald, excellent in limited screen time).
One of the greatest failures of this gangster movie is that we never get a good feel for the criminal side of things. There’s a lot of character work with the Krays, a lot of legitimate(ish) business with the nightclub, and some political scandal with the goings-on at Ronnie’s flat. But these famed gangsters rarely seem to be committing crimes during the course of the film, until the movie’s bloody climax.
But for whatever it’s failing, Legend is elevated greatly by Hardy’s work; I was often amazed at the dynamic he was able to achieve between the two brothers while playing both roles. This isn’t the kind of movie that would be expected to receive Oscar nominations, but Hardy is most deserving for his work here.