It’s been 25 years believe it or not since the story of the notorious Kray twins was explored on film, with the brothers Martin and Gary Kemp portraying them. Now a quarter of a century on we have this distinctly more glamorous exploration of their story, featuring two Tom Hardys for the price of one playing both Reggie and Ronnie Kray.
Instead of charting the twins’ childhood and rise to power, Legend pushes its audience into the deep end of them already well on the way to running London in the 1960s, using their distinct brand of charisma, intimidation and outright violence as a way to rule. Their story is told from the viewpoint of and with a voiceover by Frances (Emily Browning), the wife of Reggie who becomes increasingly tired of their criminal ways.
This represents a conspicuously Americanized take on not only the Krays infamous story of power and brutality but also of a British gangster film in general. Indeed it is, having been written and directed by L.A. Confidential scribe Brian Helgeland. To paraphrase Chazz Palminteri’s visiting US crime boss, London becomes the Las Vegas of Europe in this story and it’s shot as such. We experience this crime tale through a brightly coloured veneer of glamourized gambling, slick suits and haircuts and Goodfellas/Casino-esque set-pieces ranging from scenes akin to Joe Pesci’s legendary the “How am I funny?” interrogation that straddles the line between funny and dangerous to the outright bloody violence that is sure to shock even some of the most hardened crime saga fans.
It’s never a film that truly gets to the bone of its central figures, imposing though they are, as it’s too interested in surface level style and panache. For example, the mental instability aspect that defines Ronnie’s existence is never gone into in any satisfying detail, boiled down to a mere “if he doesn’t take his pills, he’s a bit crazy.” It’s therefore a testament to the one and only Tom Hardy that the notorious pair is as utterly compelling as they are. Quite frankly Hardy is phenomenal here, playing Reggie and Ronnie as two living, breathing distinct individuals, it never once feeling like it’s the same person just with a different haircut or manner of speaking.
Ronnie is naturally the most outlandish, unhinged of the two personas and is thus the most outright fun to watch – his angry reaction to a rival gang not bringing any guns to a shootout is a hilarious film highlight – but his more restrained, controlled Reggie is no less fascinating. He lays on a stunning double performance – helped by largely seemless CGI and use of body-doubles – that’s as fascinating as it is unsettling and one that is sure to win him a multitude of deserved plaudits when the times come around. It once again proves why he’s one of the best actors working today.
The idea of exploring this already well-known story through the prism of a key supporting figure in their life is an interesting one but it ultimately weighs the film down rather than elevates it to a clear objective stand point for telling the story. This is mainly due to an obtrusive voice-over that’s not so much the fault of Browning – who functions as the only truly likeable character in a film populated by otherwise purposefully unpleasant thugs – but rather its overly explanatory, po-faced nature. The story just didn’t need it, made all more evident by how it comes into play by the end. This approach also means that it skims over certain crucial aspects of the twins’ story, namely the overbearing presence of their mother who is reduced to backseat matriarch who serves tea and cake in a couple of scenes, disappointing for both those who know the real story and fans of the 1990 Kemp version in which she was so pivotal.
The film is called Legend and there’s a consistent, almost admirable commitment to making this particular telling of the story fit for the title. It seems less interested in getting under the surface of these men and more in holding them up as charismatic criminals who took their surroundings by storm and made sure no one ever forgot their name. It’s often too silly, at times even farcical to truly be taken seriously and is wrapped in a familiar cloak of cinematic gangsterisms. It’s a superficial, surface level crime saga for sure but enjoyable so; less Gangster No. 1 and more Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Hardy’s towering twin performance is the main reason to see it but for those that bask in the films of Martin Scorsese and those that followed his lead, it’s got personality, panache and slick charm to spare.