Ever since I first saw him in Bronson, I have been consistently captivated by watching Tom Hardy perform on screen. Since then, he has grown from being a versatile supporting actor to a bankable leading man. Unlike some actors who have made similar transitions, Hardy has managed to continuously find challenging roles. Playing twin brothers within the same film is as challenging as it gets. Legend, a biopic centered on the notorious Kray twins, succeeds at being a showcase for Hardy’s talent. Hardy is in top form here but the film around him is not quite up to snuff.
Based on a true story, Reggie and Ronnie Kray were the biggest crime lords in London during the 1960s. Even though they were identical physically, their internal complexions could not be any different. Reggie was the more composed of the two. He possessed a mean streak but carefully subverted it when necessary. He has slick confidence that his brother lacks. This confidence helps him woo his muse Frances (Emily Browning) into matrimony. This presents Reggie with a difficult dilemma: choosing the gangster lifestyle and his brother over his morally intact wife. Reggie is never a likeable character but Hardy’s performance perfectly sells Reggie’s conflicted state.
Ronnie is a man of extremes. Having spent time in an institution prior to the events of the film, he is prone to violent outbursts. A schizophrenic homosexual, Ronnie is a spiritual successor to Joe Pesci from Goodfellas. There are moments where his antics can border on comedy but there’s always an uneasy feeling whenever he is around. His relationship with his henchman/lover Teddy Smith (Taron Egerton) compliments Reggie and Frances. Hardy is unequivocally the showcase star but the supporting cast is excellent.
Despite the talented cast, Legend is a mixed bag of a film. Too much of it feels like an amalgam of Gangster film tropes, specifically the films of Martin Scorsese. The problem is that director Brian Helgeland knows the right notes but not the music. He utilizes Frances as a narrator during the film but her dialogue doesn’t offer enough worthwhile insight. Helgeland even tries his hand at a lengthy tracking shot through one of Reggie’s pubs. Not only is the choreography occasionally dizzying, the accompanying music doesn’t fit the scene. I understand why Helgeland made these decisions. Many, myself included, would say Scorsese perfected the rise and fall story with films like Goodfellas, Casino, and The Wolf of Wall Street. If you’re going to pay homage, there needs to be a significant reason which benefits your own story. Instead, too much of Legend feels like a cheap imitation of what has already been done.
I cannot stress enough how fantastic Tom Hardy is. However, Helgeland’s directorial choices do not do enough to compliment Hardy’s duel performances. The way that the twins are framed together sometimes distracts from the illusion. Even though I feel like Helgeland generally failed with paying homage to Scorsese, I think he would have benefited by taking a page out of David Cronenberg’s book. In Dead Ringers, Jeremy Irons also played twins. Cronenberg used some blocking and matting sequences that were revolutionary at the time. It really felt like there was two different people in the same frame. In Legend, it comes across as a tricky illusion that infringes upon the conceit.
As a biopic, Legend provides minimal insight into the lives of the Kray twins. Too much information is told as opposed to shown. For example, Ronnie spent a lot of time in a mental institution. His psychological state is not explored beyond his outbursts or being labeled as “nuts.” With that said, it is not a boring film to watch. The scenes depicting violence work for the most part, especially the fight between the twins themselves. Unlike Scorsese, the violence is not very gratuitous. Also unlike Scorsese, the violence doesn’t advance the story.
The story behind the Kray twins is one that warrants a cinematic adaptation. Legend does succeed at showing the Kray twins themselves. It fails at showing what exactly made them so successful and fascinating. Too much focus is placed on giving life to the world that they inhabited and the people they interacted with. Tom Hardy’s duel performance may go down as one of his best in his already storied career. It is a shame that he wasn’t complimented with a film worthy of his talent.