Movie Review: Legend (2015)


The myths, tales, and legends (sorry, it had to be done) about criminality, thuggery, and all out gangsterdom have regularly been glossed over with an elegant shine of corrupt romanticism. Even the most vehemently critical of films have adopted a fascination for the gangster’s achievement of an opulent lifestyle—filled with refined sleekness, venomous power, and obsessive control—through brutish and grittily violent means. The darkness of human nature’s vested self-interest as well as a depraved willingness to sacrifice long-term conscience for a short-term immoral gain are running themes in many gangster reflections, all of which range from Martin Scorsese’s masterful deconstructionist gangland drama Goodfellas (1990) to John Mackenzie’s study on the legitimacy of business through crime in The Long Good Friday (1980). Two very willing proponents of violence justifying their stylish means were Reggie and Ronnie Kray, the tyrannical yet oddly charming twin Kingpins of the London Underworld during the Swinging ‘60s. The Krays aren’t exactly remembered for their diminutive criminal exploits, and instead are known for their self-aggrandizing swagger and methods of rabid self-promotion; two traits that have immortalized them as exaggerated representations in film, including their obscure reference in Mike Hodges’ genre-defining down-the-rabbit-hole vengeance thriller Get Carter (1971), a direct influence for James Fox in Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg’s Performance (1970), and a direct limelight study of the twin’s parental indulgence in Peter Medak’s The Krays (1990). But what director/writer Brian Helgeland’s Legend has that previous versions do not is simply Tom Hardy in magnificent dichotomy as both Reggie and Ronnie. Without Hardy, this rote, cliché-ridden gangster drama would have floundered in its superfluous reflections on the vainglorious twins’ venality. Helgeland certainly hasn’t fashioned the profound duel-character portrait he perhaps initially envisioned, but Legend’s featured duel-performance makes this wildly imperfect film rather entertaining in its unabashed embrace of delirious anarchy.

Let’s get the initial and obvious praise out of the way: Tom Hardy’s effortless dramatic acrobatics as the Kray twins is down-right impressive to behold in Legend. It’s a thoroughly flamboyant performance, one that even rivals his tour de force magnetism in Nicholas Winding Refn’s Bronson (2007)—a thoroughly different and artistic character portrait of another notorious British crime figure. Hardy’s distinct grimaces, diverse physicality, and distinguished energy breathe separate but equal life into the Ying that is Reggie Kray’s suave yet deceptive sophistication and the Yang that is Ronnie Kray’s eloquent yet psychotic instability. In fully realizing both parts, Hardy actually plays out the evident duality of his own hiding-in-plain-sight career, which is his continuous refusal to utilize his leading-man handsomeness by disguising it through masks, beards, wigs, and any other cloaking device he can muster. There’s certainly a continuation of that performance theme within Legend, considering his personas are separated by an almost expressionless prosthetic and thick rimmed spectacles. But Hardy finds layers within the two Kingpin crime lords that the script only mildly explores, venturing Reggie’s self-deception towards his inner demon and Ronnie’s amoral acceptance of his own. While there are some minor liberties taken in setting up the film’s intended sibling antagonism, it all seems exceptionally believable with Hardy as our dramatic guide. And so it really becomes just an absolute shame that Helgeland’s film doesn’t match the kinetic, creative energy of the absolutely mad central performance. Focusing on this enthralling attribute has subsequently compromised the elegant stagecraft of the film and also inevitably diminishes the impact of the performances that are so vividly created. There’s certainly a liveliness contained in the virtuoso dramatics, but it’s a thoroughly poor substitute for actual plot.


There’s a mundane conventionality that plagues the familiar rise-and-fall arc ingrained in Helgeland’s script; a rather overused plot device that seems dutifully manufactured here than organically necessary. Loosely adapted from John Pearson’s book The Profession of Violence, Legend seeks to traverse the banal contemplations on the consequences of crime as expressed through the frequent interruptions of an unwanted narrator and unconvincing moral compass: Reggie’s eventual wife, Frances Shea (a rather wearisome Emily Browning). Unsubtly borrowing the narration construct of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. (1950), the script follows Frances’ perspective as she’s seduced by the bravura of Reggie Kray and gets entangled in his world of crime that creates emotional havoc in its wake. It’s a thoroughly different, and less effective, approach from Peter Medak’s The Krays (1990), a film that might not have an equally menacing display of performance, but certainly attempted something far more unique in exploring the perversely tolerant and encouraging influence of the twin’s mother, Violet (played exquisitely yet shortly in Legend by Jane Wood). Instead, Legend is a messy arrangement of randomized plot points—which include a wedged triangle relationship, the dynamics of the Kray’s corrupt business dealings, and a rivalry turf war—and a disorganized tone that can’t seem to distinguish authentic dread with awkward amusement. And because the film is weighed down by layered additions and a lack of multiple character focus, the emotional chronicle of the film is told wastefully through a tuneful soundtrack that includes Helen Shapiro’s Little Miss Lonely, Billy Preston’s Slaughter, and Herman Hermit’s I’m Into Something Good. As the writer for the Oscar-winning L.A. Confidential (1995) and the Oscar-nominated Mystic River (2003), Helgeland should know better ways to tell his gangster parable, and as a director he should understand that layered stories and character portraits require a more tactful steady hand.

Helgeland’s directorial career has been quite varied in quality, which includes the pandering cheapness of A Knight’s Tale (2001) and the inspirationally earnest Jackie Robinson biopic 42 (2013). But with Legend, Helgeland has actually improved upon his usually pedestrian filmic conveyance as he adopts a sleekness to his camera work and fully immerses us into the beautifully artificial milieu of the Swinging ‘60s. Instituting the talents of regular Mike Leigh cinematographer Dick Pope (Mr. Turner, The Illusionist), the film adopts a luminescent polish that utilizes earthy, shadowy colors that are halted by flashes of bloody crimson that comments on the twin’s refined lifestyle gains through an immoral price. That picturesque elegance is combined with the prominent production design of Tom Conroy (The Tudors, Breakfast on Pluto) that’s all ably aided by the mournful score from Coen Brothers’ collaborator Carter Burwell (Fargo, Adaptation). But even though Legend seems masterfully crafted in each of its individualized scenes, the film still suffers from its inability to connect it all and keep it engaging through its slog of a running time. Even though the film wants to utilize the time period’s aesthetic and culture to comment on the influence of the Krays, it instead feels rather confusing as it never taps into the stimulating cultural fluxes of the era without any real artistic specificity. Even most of the immaculately crafted scenes feel as though they’re a replica of prominently known influences, especially a courting tracking shot in Reggie’s high-end club that screams rip-off of Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990). But the real problem with Legend is Helgeland’s dichotomy of tone, a mixture of amusement and horror that feels oddly evasive when it shallowly delves into the characters’ upbringing, their supposedly tragic downfall, and their excursions into violence.


If there is one positive attribute to Legend beyond the obvious performance it’s the films attempt to erode the charming façade of Reggie as the supposed reasonable mind of the twins. Reggie might be more dashing and unassuming than the volatile cruelty of his diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic brother; however, the film messily explores that they were equal monsters, with Ronnie being, rather ironically, the more honest of the tumultuous duo. Together the Krays weren’t exactly “legends,” as the title would suggest, but they certainly knew how to navigate their time and place with a virtuosic conceit of self that inevitably cultivated the myths that have generated character influences in gangster film iconography that is represented in the works of Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, and, especially, Guy Ritchie. Unfortunately Helgeland’s film doesn’t credibly explore their avid self-promotion, their sense of criminal branding, or their celebrity by high-end proxy, as it only briefly showcases it in a film that’s visually sleek and thoroughly empty. The film’s too unfocused to be memorable, too chaotic to be streamlined, and too focused on exaggeration to find depth to its supposedly tragic characters. There’s only one reason to ever curiously seek out Legend, and that’s Tom Hardy brilliantly embodying two distinct personalities of the film’s antagonist brother dialectic. If only the film could have matched his own dynamism, for then it could have been truly legendary.

Grade: C

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