The absurd, stranger-than-fiction story of the Kray brothers–the twin gangsters in 1960s London–is a fascinating tale that seems fittingly-appropriate for the big screen. There’s sex, scandal, murder, gangsters—all staples of any great crime film. But Brian Helgeland’s Legend, starring Tom Hardy as both twins, sets up an intriguing, brutal world that gets too focused on telling all of the greatest hits for it to have any drive of its own.
It’s an odd thing to have to review two different performances from the same actor in one movie. Tom Hardy visually nails both of the twins, Reggie and Ronald, with stunning accuracy. However, the two twins are vastly different. Reggie is more level-headed, he courts—and later marries—Frances (Emily Browning). In terms of character, Reggie is actually more of the challenge because he changes, grows, and falls throughout the film, allowing for a more interesting arc than that of Ronald, who remains violent, unpredictable, and characteristically static the whole film.
But perhaps it says more about how the character was written rather than Hardy, as he is a staunchly intriguing person—a violent, self-denying homosexual who also happens to be clinically insane. Yet having both on screen at the same time is executed well, resulting in fun scenes that up the ante on the little-used technique.
While Reggie is seen with Frances and getting the criminal empire going, Ronnie is messing everything up, causing tension between the two. Just in that sentence, I outlined four threads of storyline that Helgeland ((a veteran of crime films, as he wrote the classic L.A. confidential)) tries to wrangle into a fluid film, but as he tries to highlight each of them, we don’t get deep into the substance of the threads. What makes its focus even more confusing is a continuous narration from Frances, which in most cases would slate her as the main character or focal point of the film, but she isn’t. Nonetheless, Browning gives a solid performance as the conflicted lover struggling to find solace in having a gangster for a beau.
1960s London is brought meticulously to life, soon to be destroyed by Ronnie in scenes that are starkly violent as they seem to be going more for shock-value than substance. These scenes are sometimes fun, highlighting Ronnie’s violent, insane side, they offer little else. The rest of the cast thankfully delivers, keeping up with Hardy. With parts from David Thewlis, Taron Egerton, and Paul Bettany, they help take some of the spotlight from Hardy, but due to the films lack of focus, they often feel underdeveloped, simple plot devices and we do not receive any information about their lives after the events of the film during the closing moments.
Legend is not destined to be one of the great gangster films, though it tries hard to be. In what could have been a truly fine “double trouble” film, there seems to be more trouble than anything else. As Hardy outacts one of two roles, Helgeland cannot cope with this scale of a film this size as he lets numerous plots get the best of him as he tries to at least draw them together for clumsy conclusion.