Given how heavily every piece of promotional material for Legend has focused on Tom Hardy playing both lead roles, one could draw the conclusion there isn’t much too the movie beyond that particular gimmick. To a certain point, that is kind of the case. Legend‘s plot never quite coagulates the way you would hope and the extended cast (with one notable exception) are really only there in service to the lead. The good news is seeing Tom Hardy as a pair of crime-lord siblings is more than enough to make Legend a fun and memorable experience. Both of Hardy’s roles are a joy to behold individually, but their complex relationship and Hardy’s excellent chemistry with–himself– makes for a great character piece with some unexpected heart.
Based on John Pearson’s book Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins, Legend tells the story of infamous real-life British gangsters Reggie and Ronnie Kray. We meet up with the Kray twins in the midst of building their criminal landscape out of London’s East End in the sixties. Told through the perspective of Reggie’s girlfriend and eventual wife Frances Shea (Emily Browning), the film frames itself around their relationship and Reggie’s struggle to balance his life with her, his growing business and his unstable brother.
Let’s start with Reggie. As both the brains and the main face of their operation, Reggie is cool, confident and collected. For all his gangster antics, Reggie comes across as sensible and down to earth, just someone who is very good at a job that he loves more than a ferocious criminal.
Determined and unfazed, Hardy oozes charisma as he charms some and threatens others with the same cheeky smile. As gleaming as he is, Hardy injects a certain resignation to the character; a melancholy that builds below the surface as his uncontrollable brother time and again hurts his business and his relationship.
While Reggie is a magnetic personality to get behind, Ronnie is morbidly captivating as his unhinged twin brother. Released from being institutionalised thanks to some intimidation work by his brother, Ronnie is dangerously unstable, irritable and violent at the drop of a hat. Far more interested in thuggery than creating an empire, Ronnie often sees their successes as selling out, getting distracted from the savage underworld where they belong. But besides being the monster that he is, there is a loveable idiocy to the character and some real heart that occasionally shines through his depravity, selfishness, and all around destructive behaviour.
Yes, Ronnie’s glasses and their differing hairstyles are a bit of a cheat, but it’s a testament to Hardy’s performance that you never once see these two as the same person. Body language, speech pattern and facial expressions are so well defined, if you didn’t know better you’d think it was two different actors who happened to look the same. To see the craft and care Hardy put into defining these two roles, one only has to look into the expressively caring yet exhausted eyes of Reggie and compare them to the cold, dead, nervous gaze of his brother Ronnie. This is the type of role that gives the actor a lot to work with, and Hardy knocks it out of the park, providing not just one of the year’s most memorable characters, but two.
While it really is Hardy’s show, special mention does deserve to be made to Browning’s leading lady. To a point, her character is lacking depth; an enticed young woman vying for Reggie’s attention, always at the mercy of the film’s masculine cast. But familiar though it may be, Browning proves such an amiable personality and her performance is authentic enough that she manages to subvert the trope of ‘the good woman trying to stop her husband from making a mistake (thus becoming an obstacle for the audience getting what they want out of Reggie’s character)’ and instead makes out as an endearing and capable character in her own right.
Putting aside all the great character work for a moment, Legend is one of the better examples of the fun, bombastic British crime movies we’ve seen in years. Writer/Director Brian Helgeland (42) perfectly captures the comedic edge, the grimy flair and the big personalities that make this genre great, which is even more impressive given it’s a true (and, objectively, fairly depressing) history being chronicled. Those who look back fondly of the whimsical quotability of Guy Ritchie’s earlier films are much better served watching Legend than this year’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E
Of course, for all the fun it is, Legend is ultimately a drama, so its structural shortcomings are somewhat of an issue. Aside from the problematic relationships of the three main characters, there isn’t any notable through-line for the plot, which instead follows along with their various misdeeds as problems arise and disappear. While this keeps things interesting for a while, it does eventually stagnate and the film loses a huge amount of steam in the latter half. As tensions between the brothers build and they get more and more distracted, the film creates an expectation that things will start crashing down, which never really happens. There is a thematic climax, and one that may be perfect for the story Helgeland is trying to tell, but there just aren’t enough moving parts to maintain the momentum Legend builds with its energetic first half.
In the end, Hardy is what you come for, and Hardy is what you get. For whatever problems the film has, Legend is an excellent character study of two brothers and their ability to reconcile despite all that makes them different. In some ways they are polar opposites, with Reggie trying to build and Ronnie forever trying to destroy, but it’s their love and need of each other that has them pull each other back to the middle of the spectrum, even with a poisonous resentment toward each other for having stood in their way.
It may be missing a few ingredients, but Legend is both an incredibly entertaining British crime flick and a masterclass from one of the most intriguing stars around.