The big picture consideration about Legend, Brian Helgeland’s new film about infamous London gangsters the Kray twins, is that it’s far from perfect. It’s not terrible but it’s not exactly Goodfellas either, a shortcoming that’s especially glaring given the obvious influence of Martin Scorsese’s filmography on Helgeland’s direction and screenplay here. Its rise-and-fall structure hits the rote story beats of all the prestige gangster pictures we’ve seen over the past couple decades and, in the third act, wades through some slow-as-molasses melodrama about one brother’s wife presenting him with the old it’s-me-or-the-gangster-life choice. All this and other missteps besides should put this film well beyond the purview of this column. But then there are the two big reasons to watch Legend — Tom Hardy and Tom Hardy.
Hardy plays both twins in an indelible double performance that might be up there with the two Sam Rockwells in Moon or the Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers. He’s both a main character and a supporting act, somehow juggling both perfectly. As Reggie Kray, he’s dashing and handsome, a well-dressed businessman who enjoys a punch-up but would rather avoid violence if there’s a good deal to be made. He’s like a young Marlon Brando in more ways than one. As Ronnie Kray, the diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic prone to bursts of psychopathic violence, he’s more like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, a hulking monster with a mouthful of cotton, controlling the direction of the story from its peripheries.
Actors tend to differentiate the two halves of double roles by essaying flamboyantly contrasting verbal and physical characteristics, and Hardy does this. But he also layers the performances. He projects each brother’s personal ethos with terrifying conviction.
Hardy gets a lot of technical help from Helgeland and the editors in terms of framing and perspective, the special effects crew for a spectacular brother versus brother fistfight, from makeup people for the prosthetic enhancements that give Ronnie a jaw like a rock shelf. But, unlike a lot of more run-of-the-mill double performances, his work does not rely on technical wizardry. Over the past few years of following his career, I’ve been slowly convinced that Tom Hardy can play practically anything, and not just the quirky brutes he’s known for bringing to life. Now, I’m certain. You couldn’t be blamed for thinking that two actual siblings with entirely different personalities are playing the two men. Actors tend to differentiate the two halves of double roles by essaying flamboyantly contrasting verbal and physical characteristics, and Hardy does this. But he also layers the performances. It’s not just about his carrying himself differently or speaking differently. He projects each brother’s personal ethos with terrifying conviction. When Reggie is building up his business and courting his wife-to-be Frances (Emily Browning doing her best in a somewhat thankless role), the focused heat of his ambition burns through the screen. And, later, when he pleads with Frances to return to him after a night of abuse, you can just feel the grating edge of his macho sense of entitlement scraping out your skull. Even more unsettling is the sheer force of will projected by Ronnie, whose conviction that everyone should be proud of who they are was undoubtedly a key factor in becoming a) a successful and respected gangster while also being b) openly gay. Hardy’s work here is awards-caliber and he would have been assured a few statuettes had the film around him been a little less uneven.
That said, while Helgeland does often fail to find the connective tissue to stitch them together, Legend boasts a good number of deftly directed and written scenes that get the blood pumping. Some early scenes displaying the brothers’ affinity for overcoming overwhelming odds in physical confrontations are exciting but also hilarious, combining crunchy violence with a steady stream of inventive profanity and intricate verbal provocation. A good number of reliably entertaining character actors pop up in key roles, injecting their own distinctive energy, notable among them David Thewlis as the Krays’ ballsy accountant and Paul Bettany as a gang boss with a fondness for football and torture. Ultimately, it takes a director of greater skill than Helgeland to weave the various threads of this film — a police investigation, the brothers’ criminal career, their personal love-hate dynamic, Reggie’s marriage among others — into a seamless tapestry. But it helps that so many individual scenes are dynamically crafted and a hoot to watch, wrapped in an expertly conceived evocation of the swinging London of the ’60s, and with the omnipresent Hardy to orbit around in the absence of a compelling narrative throughline. Sometimes, all it takes to hold your attention for two hours is a unique performance, and Hardy delivers one.