Brian Helgeland’s new film, Legend, treats the world to not one but two Tom Hardy performances. Counter-intuitively, adding a second Tom Hardy performance isn’t enough to counterbalance the film’s shortcomings. An ineffective narrative, uneven performances, and a wildly inconsistent tone hold Legend back from ascending to the ranks of memorable gangster films.
Legend features Tom Hardy in the role of the infamous twin brothers, Ronnie and Reggie Kray. The Kray brothers are a couple of nefarious East London gangsters that embrace their wealth and notoriety as public figures. The Kray’s lives alternate between glamorous evenings — hosting the likes of Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland in their club — and handing out beatings in grimy back alleys. Both brothers possess personalities that rank high on the psychopath scale, however, Reggie is the most level-headed of the two. Reggie is a long-term thinker and less likely to give into his base impulses. It often falls upon Reggie to keep a tight rein on his unstable brother. Ronnie is unstable and short tempered; he’s suspicious of others and doesn’t hesitate to violently eliminate threats. Legend follows the real life story of the Kray brothers at the point where Reggie meets his future wife Frances (Emily Browning). The story is told from Frances’ perspective and covers the period where Reggie becomes fully entrenched in his criminal enterprises.
When centering a film on characters as toxic as Reggie and Ronnie Kray, screenwriters tend to insert a character into the story who serves as the audience’s proxy, usually a fledgling criminal — think Henry Hill in Goodfellas. This storytelling tactic looks at a detestable underworld through the eyes of someone more relatable than hardened criminals. Legend applies the sympathetic character approach — kind of. The film is narrated by Reggie’s eventual wife Frances, and she provides the audience a rundown of the East London crime scene as seen by an outsider — but then also as an insider. The film begins as though Legend is the Kray’s story as seen by Frances before dropping her from the narrative for long stretches. The result is an awkward narrative dissonance. Frances provides a rundown on events that her character was never privy to and through her narration displays a level of personality that she never shows while onscreen.
Those familiar with the real life story of the Kray brothers know the marriage doesn’t end well, and with that in mind, Helgeland’s execution of the relationship’s arc is inexcusable. Frances and Reggie’s marriage is fine until the film requires it not to be, offering only perfunctory foreshadowing up to that point. The relationship plummets to its emotional nadir in the span of a couple of scenes (several minutes in real time).
Considering Tom Hardy’s acting chops and rising star power, his work here is disappointing (yet still amusing). The blame doesn’t all lay at Hardy’s feet, much of the issues with the performance are due to Legend’s inconsistent tone. Hardy does his best work as Reggie, the subdued half of the ruthless brothers. Hardy plays Reggie as a man always deep in thought, he makes sure that we can see the gears turning in his mind as he plots and schemes. Ronnie comes off as cartoonishly oafish. Hardy plays Ronnie as a slack-jawed brute with a paper thin divide between his ferocity and restraint. Ronnie speaks with a marble-mouthed drawl that makes one yearn for Bane’s sing-songy delivery. Hardy does an exceptional job of differentiating each character without the need for hacky devices like facial hair or obvious tics. For the most part, Hardy’s efforts and commitment to the roles are commendable.
Legend’s biggest issue is that can’t settle on a consistent tone. At times the film is dark and violent and at others time the performances border on cartoonish. Christopher Eccleston is completely wasted as Nipper Read, the officer in charge of taking down the Kray brothers. Read comes off as impotent and buffoonish, never once posing a serious threat to Reggie and Ronnie. It’s difficult to get a beat on what type of movie Legend wants to be: In one scene we’re watching a bullet tear through a man’s skull and in the next Nipper Read comes off as Clouseau-esque.
The film does a good job selling the brutality hiding behind the Krays brother’s finely tailored suits. There isn’t much action in the film, but when things get nasty, the violence is visceral and disturbing. People get shanked, skulls get cracked with hammers, and a bullet rips through a man’s forehead. Legend is not for the squeamish.
Legend is an interesting mess. There are elements to enjoy; the exquisite costumes, the glamorous sets, and 60% of Hardy’s performance all provides entertainment value. Helgeland’s big screen adaptation of Reggie and Ronnie Kray falls just short of being decent. Even though Legend’s negatives outweigh its positives, they don’t outweigh them by very much.