Tom Hardy has become one of our most chameleonic actors. While many, if not most, movie stars of his stature cling to a dependable screen persona, Hardy has made himself tricky to pin down. The dandyish operative in Inception, the hulking, indelibly voiced Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, the soft-hearted lug in The Drop and the feral road warrior in Mad Max: Fury Road are each wholly distinct from one another. Hardy’s ability to immerse himself into his roles is so effective that the star himself is largely hiding in plain sight, vanishing without a trace into whichever character he embodies.
That transformative skill has never served Hardy better than it does in Legend, where he is forced to conjure up two entirely divergent characters who look just like him. Hardy plays the Kray twins, Reggie and Ronald, who essentially ran the organized crime circuit of London’s East End throughout the 1960s. The dapper thug Reggie is the more together of the two, quick to violence but capable of rational thought. Ronald, on the other hand, is a legally insane paranoid schizophrenic whose ability to keep it together is always tenuous and dependent upon whether or not he remembered to take his pills that day. At the start of the film, the brothers have already carved out their niche in London’s underworld and are kept under constant surveillance by a dogged Scotland Yard detective (Christopher Eccelston). Reggie is forced to muscle a psychiatrist in order to keep the unhinged Ronald from being committed and, through a combination of brute strength and luck, the two outlast the competition to ascend to the top of the criminal peak.
Reggie finds himself falling in love with Frances Shea (Emily Browning), the young sister of an underling, and begins to dabble in the nightclub business. Eventually he is arrested and jailed for a short term, leaving Ronald temporarily operating as the brains of the operation, to disastrous results. Upon his release, Reggie sees the mess Ronald has made of things and a rift begins to form. Ronald focuses much of his paranoia, inexplicably, upon Leslie Payne (David Thewlis), the Krays’ business manager, who is highly intelligent and dependable, yet whom Ronald is convinced is a turncoat. After Ronald allows his obsessiveness to result in unnecessary bloodshed, the end of the Krays’ empire begins to appear on the horizon.
Legend is an exceedingly pedestrian crime drama. Much like this year’s Black Mass, it’s rote, tedious and far too familiar, elevated only by an impressive lead performance (or, in this case, performances). There is absolutely nothing here that feels fresh. The outbursts of violence, the kickin’ ‘60s soundtrack, the “let me lay it all out for you” narration (which results in an obnoxious cheat, which the movie even outright cops to) are all so achingly typical for the genre. Even the look of the film, which takes places almost entirely in dingy nightclubs and against the drab, brick-lined backdrop of East End streets, isn’t terribly impressive. These are the oft-reheated leftovers of Goodfellas served to us under the deceitful guise of a fresh-cooked meal.
But Hardy hardly lets the mediocrity around him hold him back. He makes the Krays feel like two separate entities, each with his own idiosyncratic personality and set of tics. Reggie is a hard lad, quick-tempered and disposed to frightening brutality, yet is also capable of being rational, charming and even affectionate. The bonds he has with both Ronald and Frances are deeply felt, even when they eventually curdle. But it’s as Ronald that Hardy really makes an impression. Peering from behind an unflattering pair of eyeglasses and speaking with a mush-mouthed garble of a voice, Ronald is Reggie’s polar opposite, as awkward as his brother is debonair. Not only is it a compellingly oddball performance, but it’s also a genuinely funny one, as Ronald is prone to strange non-sequiturs and intensely gawky facial expressions (his look of mouth-agape terror during a police line-up is hilarious). The film doesn’t strive for technological virtuosity in having Hardy interact with himself; generally the Krays are only shown standing next to each other conversing, and in more complicated shots, such as a protracted fight sequence between the brothers, usually only one Hardy face is visible. Legend doesn’t care about wowing us with magic tricks so much as giving Hardy all the space he needs to wow us with his dexterity.
It would have been appreciated, however, if Legend cared about a few more things. Browning is stuck with a rather thankless role of gangster’s moll turned pill-popping wife, another musty crime-movie cliché trotted out mechanically. Faring even worse is Eccleston, whom the film sets up as the gung-ho pursuer of the Krays only to mostly forget about him. There is little of the film that carves out a space in the memory beyond Hardy’s contributions. An early sequence where the brothers violently confront their rivals at a bar is a lot of fun, but sets the film up for a playful, early Guy Ritchie vibe that isn’t revisited subsequently after the film deigns to stand as yard-sale Scorsese. Even the breadth and impact of the Krays’ reign feels undercooked. We never really get a sense of the scope of their influence. Despite the swagger intrinsic to the title, Legend is no such thing.
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