United Kingdom/France. Directed by Brian Helgeland, 2015. Starring Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, David Thewlis, Christopher Eccleston, Chazz Palminteri. 131 minutes.
So once upon a time there were these twin brothers who were gangsters in London. Their names were Reginald and Ronald Kray. Reggie was suave and charming, while Ronnie was gay and liked to beat the crap out of things. They held this weird sort of position in London’s social strata in the ’60s. I’d tell you more, but that would defeat the point of reviewing Legend, Brian Helgeland’s biopic about the Krays starring Tom Hardy as both of them.
In Godfather terms, Helgeland sees Reggie as the Michael Corleone of the outfit (the leader who always tries to pass the outfit off as legit business even though everybody knows better), with Ronnie being a sort of combination Sonny and Fredo: uncontrollably violent, completely devoid of pretension, eccentric, sensitive, and a little damaged. Reg spends six months in prison, and it’s clear he’s incapable of holding down the fort, but he’s much smarter than anyone gives him credit for. The dual role of Reggie/Ronnie is the meaty sort of beast that any actor worth his salt would love to sink his teeth into, and Hardy has his knife and fork ready before he digs in. For me, these are the leading-man performances of the year.
Indeed, Helgeland conducts Legend as an actor’s showcase in general. Old-reliables Christopher Eccleston (as Leonard “Nipper” Read, the Krays’ nemesis at Scotland Yard) and David Thewlis (as Leslie Payne, the twins’ lawyer, tolerated by Reg and despised by Ron) are just the tip of the iceberg. This film is a veritable Who’s Who of “I know that guy/chick from somewhere” Commonwealth actors: Emily Browning, Colin Morgan, Taron Egerton, Tara Fitzgerald, John Sessions. None of them can compete with Hardy when they scare a scene with him, but arguably their jobs as actors are to frame his performance, which they do very well. Browning, in particular, nails the “naïve gangster wife quickly worn down by the reality of the situation” trope.
It’s good that the roles are so well-cast and directed, and the Swinging London of the late ’60s so meticulously recreated, because–as I implied earlier–you’ve seen Legend before, just under different titles like Goodfellas or Casino. As a gangster film, it hits almost all of the gangster-film beats: leader of the crime family promises his wife he’ll go straight; high-ranking loose cannon wants to take a more aggressive attitude towards the competition; everything gradually turns to shit. The biggest differences are the accents and Helgeland’s affinity for jarringly anachronistic scores. (Let’s remember, this is the guy who wrote and directed A Knight’s Tale.)
Legend may not be a great crime drama but it is a good one, thanks to the design, the ensemble, and the heavenly gift of awesomeness that is Tom Hardy. It’s plenty enjoyable even if it does put style above substance.