Here we have an interesting confluence. Before going into see this, I could say that I knew next to nothing about the infamous Kray twins, aside from the very basics: brothers who headed a criminal organisation in 1960s/70s London. The brothers from Spandau Ballet played them once.
But in Legend, not one, but both brothers are being played by Tom Hardy, a man who has rapidly climbed the Hollywood ladder into a position of great prominence, from his work under Christopher Nolan In Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, his title role in the impossible to dislike Mad Max: Fury Road or more low-key, low-budget affairs like Locke. He really is one of the best actors working today, and here is a proper cinematic treat for those, like me, who would basically watch Hardy in anything. Was Hardy good enough, in both rolls, to bring what could easily be just another crime epic up a few notches? Or was Legend as unexceptional as its trailers made it look to me?
Twins Reggie and Ronald Kray (Hardy) lead a criminal gang that controls much of the east end of 1960s London. Reggie likes the lifestyle and respect he has earned, which impresses girlfriend Frances (Emily Browning), but struggles to rein in the psychotic tendencies of the mentally unstable Ron. As the “Firm” grows and grows, Frances finds herself caught in the middle of the complex relationship between the two brothers.
Unfortunately, not even Tom Hardy doing his usual sterling work can save this one. It’s almost redundant to say that Hardy gives a good performance, and he is to be credited immensely for being able to play two diverging roles as he does in Legend. His Reggie is full of verve, hidden nastiness and ambition, his Ron is creepy, crazy and altogether unnerving, and at no point in their interactions with each other do things feel stilted or cut together.
The relationship between the two, from early moments when Reggie is getting his brother out of an insane asylum (despite Ron being clinically insane), through to the divisions that start driving them apart, is fascinating to behold. Legend wants to know how their relationship evolved as things got bigger and bigger – and more dangerous – for the firm, and how Reggie dealt with the fact that his brother was like an alien creature. But this one great shining light cannot make Legend a crime classic.
And a large part of that is to do with Emily Browning, unfortunately. Director Brian Helgeland decides to make her the films real focal point, both in terms of the plot and a narration. But from the moment that her Frances introduces us to Reggie and Ron, the film is struggling. Her performance is weak, this meek, easily dazzled east end girl struggling to get us to give her sympathy. The narration is lifeless, in the best tradition of Blade Runner, and I suspect it was a post-production idea instigated in an effort to pull the film together, such is the frequency of both showing and telling. And the words she has been given, also by Helgeland, are not all that great either: basic exposition, tortured allegories, cliché upon cliché. Anytime Frances is talking, whether she is on screen or not, Legend loses something.
That’s the risk you take with having a narration, and it doesn’t pay off here. To compare to something else out recently, take a look at Netflix’s Narcos and the continuing narration of Boyd Holbrook, which is far more tolerable, and even entertaining, helping to bridge gaps in timelines, characterisation and plot development with a proper voice. Browning just does not have that here.
Perhaps worse than that though is the general lack of direction to the story. I couldn’t figure out what Legend’s angle was in its take on the criminal lives of the Kray Brothers, beyond the dirt simple “Does crime pay?” kind of stuff that has been the staple of this genre for decades and decades. Guess what? It doesn’t. Indeed, the success of the Kray’s in terms of power, prestige and money ends up meaning less because we never really see all that much in terms of criminal enterprises anyway: anybody with no knowledge of the Kray’s at all might be hard-pressed, after seeing Legend, to enunciate just what kind of crimes the twins were actually involved in. The film lacks substance as a result, the random flashes of violence have less meaning, and the Reggie/Frances relationship that dominates the 120+ minutes just can’t carry the weight.
Similarly, a remarkably threadbare storyline surrounding the police efforts to take down the Kray’s, led by Leonard “Nipper” Read (an enjoyable but limited Christopher Eccleston) just fails to pop, for no other reason than it just doesn’t get enough time. Ignore it entirely or give it a proper place: just don’t give Read three minutes of screen time as, essentially, a background pop. Indeed, part of me wonders if a better film about all of these characters would have Read as the central focus, along with his multi-year mission to bring the Kray’s to justice.
Another good actor under-utilised is Paul Bettany as Kray arch-rival Charlie Richardson, a torture-obsessed crimeboss who, I think, only gets to be in three scenes altogether, while two scene Chazz Palminteri as an American Mafioso trying to make a cross-Atlantic partnership seems like he was only included to try and draw in American audiences, since this little sub-plot was a narrative cul-de-sac. Gang wars and inter-criminal interactions make for interesting cinema, but Legend flies through all of this remarkably quickly.
The tone is just all over the place. Legend jumps from deadly serious crime drama, featuring brutal assaults, torture, spousal abuses etc, to weird comedy angles featuring the mentally disturbed Ron as he engages in madcap schemes with his homosexual lovers, ranging from plans to build a city in Nigeria to trying to have the Firm’s legal representative (an understated David Thewlis) murdered because he doesn’t really like him. A fight scene between the two brothers at around the half-way point is an awkward affair, a punch-up that goes on for way too long for very little purpose.
Plenty of scenes got laughs from myself and the audience I was a part of, but usually it was of the shocked variety, laughing awkwardly to cover up for something incomprehensible that had occurred. I’m sure Helgeman didn’t intend for the psychopathic Ron to be funny. Or maybe he did, which might actually be worse, because make no mistake about it, the Krays were nasty, murderous people, and showing them as gangster comedians is more than a little unpalatable. That Hardy’s Ron might make you think a lot of Bane in terms of his voice – surely unintentional, but an inevitable comparison will be drawn – isn’t helping matters either. The meshing between the marriage drama of Reggie, the insanity of Ron and the comedy caper feel of other moments just doesn’t work.
In the end, Legend’s plot is just simply humdrum. You aren’t sure how you are supposed to feel about Ron and his simplistic intellect matched with random violence. You can’t get behind Reggie and the barely hidden edge that erupts in a horrifying sequence late on. Frances is a non-entity taking up too much space. And any glitz, glamour and opportunity presented as part of the London criminal underground lacks depth. The film ends on a sudden and unsatisfying point, but having drifted to the 130 minute mark, maybe this isn’t as big a flaw as you might imagine.
The films technical chops aren’t up to scratch either. The same shots and locales, from pubs to nightclubs, are used over and over again, and a clumsy attempt to ape the iconic tracking shot through the Copacabana in Goodfellas is as lameduck as it was unnecessary. Helgeland really wants his film to be a British version of Scorcese’s crime masterpiece, but it lacks the same level of cast ability, script quality and narration excellence to do so. The director, and cinematographer Dick Pope, capture some of the grime and greyness of London in this time – not unlike Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in many ways – but at its visual height Legend can really only be described as competent.
The script potters along, only really standing out for some of Ron’s more comical lines, like his instance on having a western-style shootout when ambushed in a pub, or his endearingly casual explanations of his homosexuality: “I prefer boys. Italians, sometimes Greek, but I am not prejudiced”. The twisted manoeuvrings through Ron’s homosexual orgies attended by members of the British legislature – the film veers away from the accusations of paedophilia – are equal parts comical and creepy. The very British type of humour keeps things rolling over sometimes, but the script can’t ever get away from the dryness of the narration or the simplicity of the Reggie/Frances dynamic, which really is as cliché as it comes. And the musical choices are so standard as to be worthy of eye-rolling: putting “Chapel of Love” over a wedding scene is about as lazy as it gets.
Legend then, is a disappointment. A general direction change – either to look exclusively at just one of the brothers, or the police investigation – would have produced a better movie I think. I feel like a lot was rested on Hardy’s shoulders here, the leading man asked to make up for flaws evident all over the rest of the plot and the production with yet another stellar performance.
But as good as Hardy is – and, outside of any flaws in characterisation, he is really good in the two roles – he isn’t good enough to make up for the bad script, the pedestrian visuals, the under-utilised supporting cast and the general aimlessness of the story, that doesn’t seem to want to really ask any hard questions of the Kray’s or the audience in terms of the criminal lifestyle. With all of the elements at play here, I would have expected Helgeland to come up with something a bit better. As it is, Legend will, I think, soon be consigned to the ages as just another crime drama, very far from the level signified by its title. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Universal Pictures).