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There’s a British expression, “all mouth and no trousers,” which means someone who talks a great game but can’t actually deliver on his boasts. It’s an apt way to describe Legend, an account of the infamous identical twins Ron and Reggie Kray (both played by Tom Hardy), Cockney gangsters who ran nightclubs and protection rackets, achieving tabloid notoriety in the 1960s.
Written and directed by Brian Helgeland (his script for L.A. Confidential won an Oscar, and he directed 42 and Payback, among others), this ungainly portrait strikes a lot of poses, as if inviting the viewer to admire its impressive cast list, fine period detailing, “cheeky” British humor and insouciant attitude toward violence. But none of it disguises the fact that the film is also tonally incoherent, vacuous and structurally a bleedin‘ mess. The Brits’ fading but still persistent fascination with the Krays will nevertheless ensure reasonable admissions locally, and Hardy’s name will draw interest offshore, but it’s not likely to stay in theatrical custody for long.
Aficionados of British crime movies and Spandau Ballet fans will recall that the brothers from Bethnal Green were the subjects of the 1990 film The Krays, directed by Peter Medak and starring pop stars Gary and Martin Kemp as Ron and Reggie, respectively. The Krays may look dated now, with its crash zooms and synth-heavy score, but it zips through a broader swathe of its subjects’ lives than this new film in a shorter running time, and it at least delivers one gold-chip performance from Samuel Beckett‘s muse, Billie Whitelaw, as the Krays‘ fearsome mother, Violet.
By contrast, Legend — a title so generic it’s practically meaningless and one that’s confusingly the same as the 1985 Ridley Scott film about a unicorn-loving Tom Cruise — features a fine actor, Hardy, giving one of his worst screen performances. Or at least half a bad performance, considering that it’s his hammy, bug-eyed, slurred-voice Ron Kray that’s the more egregious offender here, while his easygoing Reggie is reasonably charming (perhaps too charming, for those who value historical accuracy). The two turns operate in such wildly different registers, it’s as if two films have been haphazardly spliced together. One is a sentimental tragedy about a man (Reggie) who can’t separate himself from his mentally disturbed brother and, because of that, ends up ruining his marriage. The other a flamboyantly violent black farce about a gay psychopath (Ron) who impetuously destroys everything he touches, reminiscent, in a way, of Nicolas Winding Refn‘s Bronson, another film starring Hardy as a real-life nutter, but which was a vastly more interesting work.
Struggling painfully to hold the two mismatched parts together, Helgeland has made Reggie’s wife, Frances (Emily Browning), the third point in this quasi-incestuous love triangle. In a move that may have been intended from the start but that plays like an act of postproduction triage brought in to create some kind of coherence, Frances’ voiceover narrates the film throughout, even past the point where it makes any logical narrative sense for her to do so. Frances, or at least her voiceover, is given to making writerly pronouncements (example: “It took a lot of love for me to hate him [Reggie] the way I do”) that suggest she did a correspondence course in screenwriting somewhere in between the secretarial college and the mental asylum that are mentioned in the script.
It wouldn’t be that annoying a device, if it weren’t for the fact that onscreen Frances shows none of voiceover Frances’ capacity for wryness, insight or even much of the “fragility” she’s ascribed by others. Indeed, she barely shows any emotion at all, thanks to the decorative but dull Browning’s typically inert, blank performance. The film also frequently deploys the VO to both show and tell plot points, like Frances’ growing addiction to pharmaceutical pills, as if it can’t trust the audience to work these things out for itself.
Although it eschews the birth and childhood parts of the story covered in Medak’s film, Legend trudges through roughly the same criminal career highlights — the key murders of George Cornell (Shane Attwooll) and Jack “The Hat” McVitie (Sam Spruell) especially — but with more emphasis on Frances and Reggie’s love affair, the scandal around conservative peer Lord Boothby‘s relationship with Ron (Boothby is played with delicious fruitiness by John Sessions) and their connections to the North American mafia, personified by Chazz Palminteri‘s Angelo Bruno, a factotum for Meyer Lansky. The last plot point seems fashioned to add a bit more relevance for U.S. audiences, although it doesn’t really pay off dramatically. Nevertheless, contemporary American crime films are very much a touchstone, visible in the ostentatious references to Martin Scorsese (there’s even a long Steadicam shot that follows Reggie and Frances into a club, just like the one in Goodfellas) and, perhaps unsurprisingly, L.A. Confidential in the way the film deploys music and fleetingly introduces real historical characters.
Less effective are the jocular bursts of violence, more Guy Ritchie-like than Scorsesian, such as the scene where Ron and Reg take out a pub full of rival gangsters with little more than household objects in hand and the element of surprise. Likewise, the supporting cast has been encouraged to camp things up to the max to add an extra dose of Lock, Stock-style background color, although, admittedly, Taron Egerton‘s hyenalike Mad Teddy Smith, Reggie’s main bed buddy and henchman, is one of the film’s brighter sparks.
For many, the big draw will be seeing Hardy playing against himself. (An early poster for the film even lists his name twice above the title.) But even the deployment of this trick is somewhat disappointing and a bit off, the use of effects technology clearly discernable in some shots. The joins are much less visible in, say, the TV show Orphan Black, possibly because a smaller screen is more forgiving. But the bigger problem is Hardy’s failure to generate much onscreen chemistry with himself.
The visuals that didn’t require technical jiggery-pokery are more persuasive and pleasing, from DP Dick Pope‘s glittery, rainy-day lighting to Caroline Harris‘ sharp costumes and, most of all, Tom Conroy‘s richly detailed production design. That said, there must be something wrong with a film when viewers find themselves spending more time admiring the cocktail glasses and polished-copper wall decorations than the performances.
Production companies: StudioCanal, Anton Capital Entertainment, Working Title Films
Cast: Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, David Thewlis, Christopher Eccleston, Chazz Palminteri, Taron Egerton, Colin Morgan, Tara Fitzgerald, John Sessions, Charley Palmer Rothwell
Director-screenwriter: Brian Helgeland
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Chris Clark, Quentin Curtis, Brian Oliver
Executive producers: Kate Solomon, Amelia Granger, Liza Chasin, Tom Hardy
Co-producer: Jane Robertson
Director of photography: Dick Pope
Editor: Peter McNulty
Production designer: Tom Conroy
Costume designer: Caroline Harris
Composer: Carter Burwell
Casting: Lucinda Syson
R, 131 minutes
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