The story of identical British gangster twins Reggie and Ronnie Kray may seem like it’s too big to be true. That’s definitely how I felt watching this film, almost thinking the whole thing felt so crazily exaggerated that it couldn’t possibly be real. As I would learn afterwards, Brian Helgeland’s bio-pic about two brothers who ran a criminal empire in the East End of London in the 1960s is all true. I devoutly wish a stronger writer and director took on this project as it comes off as a weak Scorsese wannabe despite a fantastic dual role from star Tom Hardy.
To call Helgeland a less than stellar director seems like a little smack in the face given how he started his career. Two Academy Award nominations, one resulting in a win for his screenplay for L.A. Confidential, make him an accomplished Hollywood writer. Once put in perspective, you see that the Oscar was in 1998 and the nomination was for Best Picture winner Mystic River in 2004, a film that I think stole the prize. You can agree to disagree with me there, as I have this debate all the time. The bottom line is with a handful of failed films behind that, including The Order, Taking of Pelham 123 and Robin Hood, the director has had more losses than wins on his scorecard, although I’m willing to give him a large break for the great A Knight’s Tale.
Aside from the absolutely horrible original score, Legend starts off alright. With a narration from Reggie Kray’s later wife Frances Shea (Emily Browning), we are introduced to Reggie himself, a charismatic and confident “club owner” who struts down the street, greeting the townspeople like a well known local politician. He is loved by everyone he helps, feared by those who try to take something from him, and hated by the local police who don’t have enough evidence to put him away.
On the other side of the story is Ronnie Kray, a violent sociopath who regularly goes unmedicated for his schizophrenic condition. By threatening the insane asylum’s top physician, Reggie is able to get his brother released from custody with a glowing bill of mental health, one which certainly wasn’t earned. Together the two take London by storm and create a scheme that ends up bumping off their rivals and opening the entire city to them for the taking. It’s a quick rise to the top that is all unraveled due to Reggie’s blinding family bond to his brother.
As you can probably predict, retrieving Ronnie out of a mental facility might not have been the best thing for business. Reggie is temporarily jailed, leaving Ronnie in charge of their newly acquired empire. This quickly turns dark and violent under the eyes of the unhinged and paranoid thug who basks in the light of being a gangster. There’s an interesting “mic-drop” moment in the film where he gets up on stage at their nightclub to tell the audience, consisting of the aristocrats and celebrities who flocked to the establishment, how disgusted they make a gangster like him feel. It feels like too grandiose for real life but it did happen.
My problem with this movie lies completely with it’s execution. It feels entirely too long for one thing, clocking in at a big two hours and eleven minutes. Under the weight of Tom Hardy’s great performances, the rest of the cast seems to pale in comparison, aside from David Thewlis, who plays Leslie Payne, the business mind and adjuster that assisted the brothers. The other actors get lost in the same cliches found in every “rise and fall” criminal story.
I really wanted to like this film more than I did and as much as I’d like to say it’s worth going to the theatres for Tom Hardy’s performance alone, the rest of the production value on the film makes it a well performing home theatre watching. The film lacks any original style and nothing about it aside for the kitsch value of a twin performance sets it apart from any other mediocre gangster film. I give Legend a favorable three out of five.