Tom Hardy is, in my mind, one of the most interesting actors working today. His work in different types of films, from Locke to Mad Max: Fury Road shows an actor willing to fully invest in whatever role he’s handling. So the idea of him taking on the role of British gangster Reggie Kray – and twin brother Ronnie Kray – sounds like promising casting for what could be a fascinating film. The casting part is true, but Hardy is left adrift by a film that in nearly every other regard has no clue what to do.
Legend focuses on the rise and fall of the Kray brothers. Twins Reggie and Ronnie are both leaders of their criminal organization, with Reggie’s cool head running the operations and Ronnie’s schizophrenic personality serving more as a loose cannon. Their relationship grows strained as they quickly rise in London’s East End, and is further complicated by Reggie’s burgeoning relationship with Frances Shea (Emily Browning), who wants Reggie to become a legitimate businessman. The Krays’ rise also faces attention from a police officer (Christopher Eccleston) who’s determined to lock them away.
It’s not a bad setup, and it’s made more intriguing with some of the nuances of the Krays. Reggie, for instance, can become more violent than Ronnie when properly provoked. Ronnie, meanwhile, insists on living an honest life – which not only means publicly calling himself a gangster, but also openly admitting to being gay and carrying on with his lovers (including Kingsman: The Secret Service‘s Taron Egerton) in public. Hardy is clearly relishing the chance to create distinctive characters, and his takes on Reggie and Ronnie are the highlights of the film. He makes the twins unique, far beyond slapping a pair of glasses on Ronnie. They each have distinctive speech patterns, facial expressions, and physical gaits. Hardy particularly leans into Ronnie’s more unhinged moments, which nearly push the film into comedy for brief moments. It’s not exactly in keeping with the tone of the film, but it makes for something more entertaining than everything else going on in the film.
That’s because outside of Hardy’s performance, writer/director Brian Helgeland’s project doesn’t have a clear sense of direction, which becomes more of a problem as the film drags past the two-hour mark. A large part of the film is devoted to the relationship between Reggie and Frances, and Frances even serves as the film’s narrator. It’s a bad call. Their relationship hits every gangster love story cliché, and is further marred by Browning’s complete lack of chemistry with Hardy. To his credit, Helgeland at least manages to get some talent working behind the scenes, with Carter Burwell’s score and Dick Pope’s cinematography making the film look and sound far better than it should.
Legend is hardly that, but Hardy’s performance certainly provides plenty to enjoy in and of itself. But when it’s surrounded by a film as aimless as this, where little else works, it’s hard to get recommend it for anyone not interested in Hardy as an actor. Watching Hardy take on himself in scene after scene creates an undeniable electricity. If the film surrounding his performances came close to that, it would actually justify the title.