by Philip Price
“Legend” is a movie that aspires to be a great gangster epic and in some regards it is, but this is not the gangster epic in the same vein as something like “Goodfellas.” It is more a representation than an adaptation, which is fine because it works for the characters at play and never fails to be thoroughly entertaining. Director Brian Helgeland delivered a straightforward, but rousing biopic of Jackie Robinson two years ago in “42,” but has written films such as “L.A. Confidential” and “Mystic River” in his 27 years in Hollywood. With “Legend,” Helgeland tests his directorial prowess by taking on a much bigger scope and a more complex story that features a diverse set of personalities. Each of these things having to be managed and pieced together in a way that feels coherent and there are times you can almost feel the structure creaking under its own weight. Near the end of the second act the film almost gives way to a full on tsunami of varied tones and plot strands falling in on themselves and flooding out to leave behind nothing more than puddles of once strong and vibrant storytelling methods as well as the exceptional double performance of Tom Hardy. Lucky for Helgeland, he hired an actor with as much gravitas and ability as Hardy allowing him to pull off this stunt and leave the audience ruptured in his showing to the point we don't so much care about what else is going on around him. We acknowledge the given circumstances the real-life people fell into, but we're all just watching to see what Hardy does with the situation.
In the East End of London during the 1960s the Kray twins were kings. Reggie (Hardy) is the brains of the operation. The smooth, attractive, charismatic and smart entrepreneur who dismisses the thought of himself as a gangster despite enjoying spending his time at the clubs he owns, making large sums of money and getting the respect of a gangster. Reggie is building an empire, partnering with Leslie Payne (David Thewlis) who essentially does all of Reggie's bookkeeping and keeps his affairs in order while his brother, Ronnie (also Hardy) is an out of control eccentric who suffers from schizophrenia and just so happens to be hilarious. After getting Ronnie out of the crazy house and putting away their competition in crosstown rival Charlie Richardson (Paul Bettany) the Kray's set their sights on London and making it the Vegas of Europe. Meeting with American gangster Angelo Bruno (Chazz Palminteri) they cut a deal to open a casino in London that is an instant hit and thrives beyond their wildest dreams. Things seem to be going as well as can be imagined for the twins, especially with Reggie meeting Frances Shea (Emily Browning) and developing a genuine relationship with her. While this is clearly the Kray's story, Frances is actually our narrator and thus we are given a certain perspective on the twins that allows for the film to glamorize and make sexy the gangster lifestyle that we tend to idolize for its power and unflinching brutality, but also making it apparent why such a lifestyle is ultimately unfulfilling and vapid. That it is no way of sustaining a content lifestyle, but one that will instead only ever lead to some kind of inevitable tragedy.
While “Legend” would like to have you believe there is some major scheme or turf war that serves as the basis for the film’s plot the truth is the film is really only about the tumultuous relationship between Ronnie and Reggie and how it influenced everything else either of them ever did in their lives. Ronnie is a brute of a man, but also an admitted homosexual that has no qualms about telling people what he is and how he likes to do things. At the same time, the guy is clearly afraid of change and the thought of no longer being in business or continuing his routine with his brother terrifies him. Reggie, on the other hand, is typically level-headed until he is ultimately forced to choose between the loyalty he feels to his brother and the loyalty he should feel with his wife as he and Frances eventually wed. In their relationship, things suffer once they are married and if anything Reggie becomes more of a gangster than he's ever been despite Frances encouraging him to go straight. When Reggie has to turn himself in on a hiccup and do three months of jail time Ronnie comes between Payne and the prospering business eventually setting himself up as too big a risk for the brother’s partners overseas. More than anything, Reggie wants to do away with his brother as he causes him more heartache than anything else, but knowing he is the only one who will genuinely take care of him and look out for his best interests Reggie goes into a downward spiral, blaming his frustrations on Frances and destroying their relationship over his own with Ronnie.
These two battling mentalities give way to what is most interesting about the film as this premise in itself affords Hardy an opportunity to show us how these guys really tick. In an attempt to not state the obvious, Hardy is magnificent as he truly embodies the physicality, the speech patterns and the internal conflicts of two separate entities in the same film, many of which are in the same scenes. The Kray's are the star of the show and that Helgeland and his star so effortlessly pull off the tricks of the trade that gel both of these distinct performances together deserves a round of applause in itself. That Hardy is able to consistently keep up with the different temperaments and emotional mindsets of where each brother is at during any given scene is almost incomprehensible and even more impressive. “Legend” doesn't just get by on its technical achievements though as Helgeland and his team have constructed an entire world out of East End London. The period details are simply an extension of the characters while the film also possesses a certain energy that's no doubt a result of the expert pacing and impressive camera work, especially in a long single-take near the beginning in the Kray's club that defines the craftsmanship we're in for. Helgeland may not be able to balance his story, intended tone or even main ideas throughout the film as well as he could have, but Hardy is the one constant holding this thing together and he does it with such appeal and charm that we can't help but be fascinated by these men. The Kray's are not admirable men, but the fact they somehow managed to remain so dedicated to one another that they don't only ruin their own lives, but everyone else's around them is endlessly fascinating. Helgeland has enough of that in his film that to Hardy's introspective double performance to last long past the two hour and 11 minute run time.