There have been so many gangster movies at this point that the only way to make an entry in the genre appealing is through some sort of stunt. ‘Black Mass’ recently rescued Johnny Depp from his mountain of scarves to give him an actual human to play, and now comes Brian Helgeland’s ‘Legend’, which doubles down on Tom Hardy performances to chase attention. Hardy definitely delivers while working double duty. Too bad the movie around him doesn’t quite match his efforts.
The film is a retelling of the tale of the Kray brothers, identical twins who ruled the London underworld during the swinging ’60s. The movie splits their violent psychosis and business ambitions right down the middle for the sake of simplicity. In this version, Reggie (Tom Hardy) is a cool, collected and ambitious character looking for ways to make his gangster games legitimate. On the other hand, Ronnie (Hardy, again) is mentally ill, self-destructive and intoxicated by his violent lifestyle. It’s unlikely that the split between the real brothers was that clean, but it gives Hardy the chance to play two sides of the same brain competing against each other.
Hardy is pretty spectacular in both roles. He uses Reggie as a means to stoke his rising movie star persona fires and Ronnie as a way to commit to one of his most intelligible voices and twisted performances to date. He slides into both roles so comfortably that it’s easy to forget you’re watching a single actor share the screen with himself. His Reggie is a charmer and a snake, while Ronnie varies from terrifying to a sketch comedy character. As frightening as Ronne can be, Hardly layers dark humor into the role and makes him endearingly amusing.
It’s actually surprising how much Helgeland leans into the humor of the horrible tale, making his movie feel closer to the script he wrote for ‘Payback’ than the one he co-wrote for ‘L.A. Confidential’. Beyond the movie-stealing Hardy, the director clearly encouraged a number of actors (including Paul Bettany and David Thewlis) to play things broad for sick laughs. That’s a perfectly reasonable approach for this sort of genre material. The trouble is that the whole thing is played a bit too broad for the movie to also satisfy the true crime trappings that Helgeland courts. Like all gangster tales, the filmmaker presents his story as fun until things get too violent, but because the tone is often outright goofy, it’s hard for much of the tragedy to register.
While the wonky tone proves to be a problem, even worse is the perspective that Helgeland chose for the film. Oddly, the movie is told through the eyes and voiceover of Reggie’s wife (Emily Browning). It’s a good choice in that it means Helgeland can skip over all the unnecessary childhood and rise-to-power chapters that could have slowed this thing down. However, even though the story starts with the Krays in charge, it has to constantly slow down to include Browning’s 2D character. It doesn’t make sense that she’d know about some of the scenes she narrates, and as much as the talented actress tries her best, she’s never able to transcend the fact that her character exists purely to humanize Reggie with no inner life of her own. That’s a shame and a waste.
Still, while ‘Legend’ might suffer from tonal issues and a poorly chosen protagonist, the movie is pretty fun. Helgeland might be merely checking off all the requirements from the generic gangster movie playbook, but he does so efficiently and entertainingly. Then of course Hardy carries ‘Legend’ on his shoulders with a pair of spectacular performances that are worth the price of admission alone. Hardy is fast becoming the finest actor of his generation, and while this is far from his best film, it does boast two of his most amusing performances and proves that he even has the chops to steal scenes from himself (no easy task, ask Christian Bale). For those who love Tom Hardy, ‘Legend’ shouldn’t be missed, even if the actor’s excellent work deserved a better movie to contain it.