Legend is the best movie of the year if your idea of a great movie is watching one of our preeminent actors hamming it up for two hours and change in service of a lacking story.
I’m not being sarcastic. There’s something to be said for watching a great actor go to work, and Tom Hardy’s performance as Ronnie and Reggie Kray is a true delight, something to whet the appetite of those of use who were a bit disappointed that Hardy’s Max Rockatansky (Mad Max Fury Road) was more or less mute and wearing a mask for a third of the film.
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Hardy has no shortage of dialogue in Legend. He’s playing flip sides of a psychopathic coin: Reggie is a street fighter with a brain and a nose for business, operating a pub (and later a casino/nightclub) when he isn’t shaking down the locals; Ronnie, on the other hand, is in the loony bin as the film opens, sidelined with a rather acute cause of paranoid schizophrenia. None of that really matters to Reg, who strong-arms a shrink into giving Ronnie a clean bill of health.
In a surprise to no one—not even Reggie, if he’s being honest with himself—Ronnie’s mental problems are quite a bother for the brothers. Ronnie distrusts their business partners and Reggie’s girl, Frances (Emily Browning), in equal measure. Part of it is jealousy, a desire to keep the Kray boys together and separate from the world. Part of it is simple lunacy and a lack of self-control, as when Ronnie mounts the stage at their popular London nightclub, offending the regulars with a rambling, incoherent bit that threatens to turn violent at any moment.
Hardy’s performance as the twins is not exactly subtle—occasionally it calls to mind his semi-Vaudevillian turn in Bronson—but it is sublime. He fills both brothers with a unique vitality. Yes, the makeup he wears for each is slightly different. But you could grok which is which solely by watching their body movements and facial tics or listening to their drawls. Reggie’s puckish reserve and suave movements are quite the contrast to Ronnie’s blank-eyed, squinting madness and stooped shoulders.
As a character study of the Krays, Legend is a success. As a story of their rise and fall, however, it’s more hit-and-miss. We are frequently told that the Krays are "legendary" characters among London’s gangsters, their penchant for violence unmatched and their name whispered in fear. We occasionally see why that reputation was deserved: The scene in which the two Krays bluff and bully and batter their way out of a beating at the hands of a bunch of rival mobsters is alternately hilarious and cringe-inducingly brutal.
As far as their actual criminal exploits go, however, we are left wondering why, exactly, these guys were considered such towering figures. Compare it with Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese’s classic tale of mob mayhem: We leave that film with a pretty decent sense of the various scams perpetrated by the Italian mobsters who ruled New York City, of the cigarette truck hijackings and the Lufthansa heist and the descent into drug-fueled madness. Legend never really manages to do the same.
I reference Goodfellas specifically because it feels as though writer/director Brian Helgeland was using Scorsese’s film as a template. It’s not just the episodic nature of the movie or the use of the girl who marries into a family of bad boys without knowing what she signed up for. It’s also the minutes-long shot that tracks Reggie and Frances hitting up Reggie’s club.
Whereas Scorsese’s famous tracking shots in Goodfellas introducing us to Paulie’s crew and taking us through the rear of the Copacabana conveyed a great deal of information—about Henry’s friends, about how he dealt with life, about his refusal to live as a schnook—and did so with some style and verve, the same shot in Legend feels static and unnecessary. The camera glides through the pub and then just sort of stops on a table, where Reggie puts a beating on a local deadbeat caught impinging on the Krays’ territory. And then the camera follows Reggie back to his table with Frances, where it just stops again. The shot is long but the payoff is minimal—he’s moving between worlds, you see: boyfriend and criminal, all in one—and it’s not even particularly impressively done. It’s just kind of, well, there.
Still, I’m willing to look past the sloppily episodic nature of the film and the fact that I don’t particularly care about the romantic relationship at its core. I simply can’t be bothered with such trivialities. Tom Hardy is just that good. He’s a legend in his own time.