Problems notwithstanding (and there are problems, we’ll get to those), Brian Helgeland’s would-be gangster epic performs a vital public service by providing audiences with twice the Tom Hardy at no extra charge. Cresting a wave of popularity driven by his excellent turn as a willfully emasculated Max Rockatansky in the spring’s Mad Max: Fury Road, Hardy takes on both Ronnie and Reggie Kray, twin brothers who ruled gangland London with a pair of iron fists during the ‘60s. Hardy’s in fine form, fully developing each Kray with an individual identity despite their shared face. Ronnie’s the cool-headed yin to Reggie’s psychotic yang, reeling his brother in every time his volatility bubbles over into reliably shocking violence. It’s not just the horn-rimmed glasses and neanderthal’s underbite that set the openly homosexual Reggie apart from his bruv — it’s his tangible and deeply felt sense of vulnerability and tenderness, hidden beneath a veneer of brutality and outright insanity.
If only the movie surrounding the Krays was half as compelling as the men themselves. Helgeland’s whipped up a pleasurable but punishingly derivative riff on Goodfellas for his follow-up to 2013’s Jackie Robinson biopic 42. (Though he’s chiefly known as the screenwriter behind L.A. Confidential, and, unjustly less so, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Warriors.) All of the pre-established themes and plot beats have been set firmly in place; the heady rise to the top, the self-immolating fall, and the dirty fun to be had along the way have all been shipped across the pond from Henry Hill’s New Yawk to London. With the swinging ‘60s kicking into high gear, the Krays prepare to solidify their chokehold on Blighty’s criminal underground. Their chief impediments, in order of urgency: a bobby hot on the brothers’ trail (Christopher Eccleston), Reggie’s inability to stop himself from wantonly killing men who look at him askance, and Ronnie’s dewy-eyed sweetheart (Emily Browning) who just wants her man to get on the straight-and-narrow. As Ronnie’s blushing bride Frances, the infant-faced Browning seems miscast against the all-man Hardy, until a cursory Googling reveals that Ronnie first began romancing the poor girl at the ripe old age of sixteen. The gulf between their outwardly-presenting ages, surprisingly, does not diminish their chemistry.
A cracking soundtrack full of pop hits and a handful of electrifying setpieces (the scene in which Ronnie and Reggie get into a no-holds-barred slap fight may be the single greatest artistic application of CGI this year) keep Legend from getting too bogged down in its own lineage. Even so, the film lacks a crucial sense of individuality. Helgeland’s script insightfully distinguishes between Ronnie and Reggie, but that can’t keep it out of the long shadow cast by Legend’s big brother, Martin Scorsese.
Rating: 3 Extra-Limey Burritos Out Of 5
Legend hits theaters on November 20, 2015.