Despite an impressive dual performance from Tom Hardy, and a buoyant, on-the-money soundtrack (intertwined with maniacal compositions from Carter Burwell), Brian Helgeland’s retelling of the Kray Brothers’ incredible life story will never top Monty Python’s uproarious satire of it. A film every bit as violent as the sadistic twins it seeks to portray, Legend struggles to hold audience attention through an overlong run time, and a vacuous narrative.
A voice-over from co-star Emily Browning introduces us to the brothers, providing enough background detail to inform their personalities, and motives, for the rest of the film. Reginald “Reggie” Kray is surely the brains of the operation, while his paranoid-schizophrenic brother, Ronald, is a violent, unbalanced enforcer. We are privy to the Kray’s rise to power: their takeover of the East End and eventually London as a whole, their foray into nightclubs and “stardom,” and Reggie’s sweetly-menacing courtship of Frances, which provides an intimate familiarity with just how violent London’s underground was in the 1960s. Long, Scorsese-like tracking shots of Reggie rubbing elbows with starlets and greeting accomplices feels like a forced nod to Goodfellas, yet they lack any of the awe-inspiring grace exuded by the man that perfected them. The Krays’ brutality is all but openly applauded until the final act, maybe because the director’s own bloodlust has been fully satiated.
There are certainly limits to any actor’s abilities, but for Tom Hardy, playing twins is not one of them. Reggie is more or less a standard “tough guy” character, complete with dashing good looks and a gruff, business-savvy persona. It is a role that Hardy is all too familiar with, and his portrayal of Reggie is every-bit as satisfactory as one would expect. With Ronny, however, Hardy is able to explore the darker realms of personality while pushing the boundaries of likability. Although one may remain skeptical of him, Ronnie’s pure dynamism and often-childlike demeanor prove to be far more magnetizing than any accumulating hatred. In this way, Helgeland depicts Ronnie from his brother’s eyes; any ill will or fear is turned into a trepidatious love for the clearly mentally ill man. Browning’s Frances is equally-layered, and she becomes a startling pair of eyes through which we are to view the Krays. A constantly shifting character, Frances grows from a bubbly teenage girl into a pitiable, forgotten wife — reflected two-fold by her own narration and Helgeland’s heavily-emotive direction.
Try as she might, Browning cannot succeed at being the emotional core of the film. Through highs and lows, our proxy falls in love, begins to feel tremendous fear, becomes increasingly spiteful, and eventually plummets into a numbing depression — yet only a tiny fraction of these experiences are conveyed. An overtly happy sock-hop soundtrack is enough to overshadow any true empathetic reaction, while the senses are overloaded by the Kray’s blithe callousness. If it seemed less unintentional, It would almost be a brilliant simile to France’s relationship with Reggie. Instead, Helgeland offers innumerable rash beatings, artificial tension created by the near-constant potential of violence, and a gleeful sort of tenderness shown to the brothers.
Like a bipolar Guy Ritchie version of Goodfellas, Helgeland’s Legend offers little more than an opportunity to see a bespectacled Tom Hardy fighting a slightly more handsome Tom Hardy. Instead of a two-hour exploration of the Kray brothers’ various idiosyncrasies and business acumen, the time is wasted on gawking at their animalistic ruthlessness and decaying interpersonal relationships. Little more than an extravagant, blood-soaked and alcohol-fueled story, Legend fulfills its title; an overinflated piece of bar room folklore better told over a cold pint of Guinness (or several).
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of sunny San Diego, California. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.