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Legend (2015)

Legend (2015)DIRECTOR: Brian Helgeland

CAST: Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, David Thewlis, Christopher Eccleston, Chazz Palminteri, Taron Egerton, Paul Anderson, Paul Bettany, Kevin McNally, Sam Spruell

REVIEW:

My opinion of Legend is much the same as that of another true crime docudrama, Black Massa few months earlier; a tour de force lead performance(s) and some memorable individual scenes doing too little to enliven an otherwise dull and generic gangster flick.  If you’re a big enough fan of the gangster movie genre, or of Tom Hardy, Legend may be worth a look, but “legendary” it is not.  Those hoping for a gangster epic conveying the true story of 1960s London’s notorious Kray twins will be left wanting.  For writer/director Brian Helgeland, who made a name for himself with 1997’s LA Confidential (and also wrote and directed 1999’s deliciously hard-boiled crime caper Payback), this is a disappointingly uninspired and generic effort that like Black Mass comes across as “Scorsese-lite”.  LA Confidential won Helgeland an Oscar, but while a case could easily be made for a nomination for Tom Hardy, the rest of Legend is far from Oscar material.  

Through the (unnecessary) narration of Frances Shea (Emily Browning), who strikes up an ill-fated romance with Reggie Kray, Legend unfolds in docudrama style the (mostly) true story of the Kray twins, Reggie and Ronnie (both played by Tom Hardy).  Reggie is outwardly a gentleman, suave and debonair, and smoothly wins over the naive and impressionable Frances with his roguish charms.  In sharp contrast to the cool-headed businesslike Reggie, his twin Ron, recently released from a mental institution, is a violence-prone paranoid schizophrenic itching for a fight.  The two brothers carve out a niche for their gang in London’s East End, first as small-time nightclub owners and racketeers, then moving into the big time when they forge an alliance with Philadelphia mafioso Angelo Bruno (Chazz Palminteri) and open an upscale casino aimed at turning London into “the Las Vegas of Europe”.  But Ron’s instability and erratic behavior threatens to jeopardize the fledgling Kray business empire, and dogged detective “Nipper” Read (Christopher Eccleston) is always watching for a chance to strike.  Reggie’s loyalty to Ron is his main honor point, but may also prove to be his Achilles’ Heel.  And as the emotionally fragile Frances is drawn deeper into the gangland underworld, her mental well-being begins to unravel.

legendOne problem with Legend is the way it chooses to make Frances the viewpoint character.  Her never-ending narration is an annoying and unnecessary device that offers little insights we can’t glean from what’s happening onscreen, and too often consists of trite platitudes that sound like the screenplay is reaching for something “profound” to say and not coming up with anything worthwhile.  Narrations rarely add to a story rather than distract from it, but I haven’t encountered such a superfluous narration since Joseph Gordon-Levitt basically spent the entirety of The Walk describing every scene to us (actually, the ham-handed pretentiousness of Frances’ narration might make hers even more obnoxious).  And aside from her narration, Frances doesn’t feel like the appropriate centerpiece of the movie.  Legend focuses on the Reggie/Frances romance to the point that the Krays’ rise and fall is skimmed over and shallowly-developed.  Never do we really get a sense of the real twins’ dominance over 1960s London’s criminal underworld, and there’s a sense that the odd aspects the movie chooses to focus on leaves it barely scratching the surface of what should be the main story.  For a movie titled “Legend”, it’s a little strange and more than a little disappointing and underwhelming that it doesn’t do a very good job of showing us why the Krays are legendary British gangland figures.  The Krays’ “nemesis”, Nipper Read, is terminally underdeveloped, his skeletal “subplot” (if it can even be called that) consisting of popping up at random in a few scattered scenes and seeming completely superfluous.  One suspects much of his role ended up on the cutting room floor.  And even when it comes to Frances, the movie doesn’t do an especially good job with character development.  Emily Browning’s performance is adequate, but she never rises above the “gangster’s long-suffering girlfriend who’s not cut out for his world” cliche, and while there’s some poignancy in the way her story wraps up, the movie’s dry docudrama tone keeps us from feeling as much as we’re probably supposed to.

More interesting than the Reggie/Frances doomed romance is the often contentious dynamic between Reggie and Ronnie.  “Blood is thicker than water”, Ronnie crows at one point, and the tie that binds the twins is also Reggie’s blind spot.  “My loyalty to my brother is how I measure myself”, he insists to Frances (he has no good response when she asks about his loyalty to her).  However exasperated Reggie often is by Ronnie’s irrational behavior, loyalty to his twin always wins out.  The movie initially presents Reggie as the straight man and the more reasonable of the two, then sows doubts by showing his increasingly callous treatment of Frances.  But however bad their behavior might be at times, the movie glamorizes the Krays more than Black Mass did Whitey Bulger.  Even the title, “Legend”, speaks of a level of glamorization, and while both brothers commit at least one cold-blooded murder over the course of the movie, it softens their roughest edges and shies away from depicting their worst aspects.  When it comes to ruthless gangsters, Black Mass’ depiction of its lead character was more unflinching and unromanticized.

And like Black Mass, the dry tone is occasionally enlivened by abrupt bursts of brutal violence, including an enjoyable sequence with both Krays in a brawl with rival gangsters in a pub (in which Reggie sports brass knuckles and Ron is armed with two hammers).  The most savage display of violence on-hand comes in the last few minutes of the movie, in a stabbing scene vicious enough to be cringe-inducing, and Scorsese-like in its blunt, unflinching presentation.  There’s also a darkly comedic sequence with the surreal image of Tom Hardy fighting Tom Hardy, with the twins butting heads in an over-the-top knock-down drag-out throwdown in the middle of their nightclub while their henchmen, associates, and lovers look on as awkward spectators.  Unfortunately, moments like these that make an impression are too few and far between.  Also, despite Ron bluntly admitting his homosexuality in several scenes, the movie is guilty of severely lopsided double standards when it comes to each twin’s love life.  The romance between Reggie and Frances is the entire centerpiece of the film, but Ron’s relationship with his right-hand man/boyfriend Teddy (Taron Egerton) is only implied, and there’s almost something a little old-fashioned about the way the movie skirts around it; aren’t movies past the point of playing so coy about this kind of thing?

legend-2015-07It’s easy to see what might have attracted Tom Hardy to the Kray twins, where he gets to show off his acting chops by playing two very distinct characters, often in the same scene (achieved by acting out a scene first as one brother opposite a double, then flipping around and acting out the same scene as the other brother, and then digitally spliced together), and the double whammy serves as a reminder of how forceful of a screen presence Hardy can be when he goes full throttle.  Reggie and Ronnie might be twins, but they don’t look or act alike (Hardy donned some prosthetics and padding and affected an underbite for Ronnie), giving Hardy plenty of room to show his range, alternating between the suave and debonair Reggie, who clearly fancies himself a gentleman and shies away from the “gangster” label (which his twin embraces proudly), and the unhinged Ronnie, whose mental instability makes him prone to abrupt bursts of violence, rambling incoherent monologues, irrational flights of fancy (at one point he demands £50,000 to build a company in Nigeria), and an itchy trigger finger.  At times, his performance as Ron approaches the level of ferocious rage he reached in Bronson, although as in Bronson, there are also moments when it’s darkly comical.  As in Bronson, there’s undeniably some scenery-chewing going on here (especially in the juicier role of Ron), but that doesn’t stop it from being tour de force acting that sometimes singlehandedly makes an otherwise painfully mediocre film not only watchable, but sporadically riveting.  Rather than simply putting glasses on and changing his suit and hairstyle, Hardy makes each brother distinct enough in appearance, voice, mannerisms, and personality that Reggie and Ronnie feel like two separate characters, not just Tom Hardy playing dress-up.  Alas, as was also the case in Bronson, it’s a bit of a shame that Hardy is clearly giving his all in a movie that largely squanders it.

The supporting actors/characters get short shrift.  Emily Browning’s performance is okay, but never manages to raise Frances above the dreary cliche she’s relegated to.  David Thewlis gets some nice moments as the Krays’ mild-mannered accountant Leslie Payne, who considers himself merely a businessman and is often appalled by the twins’ violence.  Christopher Eccleston has the thankless role of the dogged copper with a stick up his ass who gets nothing to do besides sneer and follow the Krays around, while Chazz Palminteri does his patented well-honed gangster bit.  Even more shortchanged is Taron Egerton (the star of Kingsman: The Secret Service earlier this year) as Ron’s worshipful lieutenant/boy toy Teddy, who smacks of a potentially interesting character woefully underdeveloped.  Paul Bettany has basically a cameo as a psychotic rival gangster, who’s juicy enough in his couple of scenes to make us wish he’d stuck around longer, but he appears for probably a maximum total of five minutes early in the movie.  Spending more time on the supporting ensemble of Kray enemies and associates instead of making everything all about Frances’ ill-fated romance with Reggie could have made Legend a deeper, richer film.

Those hoping for a true crime docudrama that does justice to the infamous Kray twins will likely be left still waiting for a definitive film adaptation.  There’s nothing wrong with Tom Hardy’s portrayal of the twins; in fact, his dual role likely constitutes his best performance since 2008’s Bronson, but as in Bronson, his acting is better than the material around him.  Unless one is an avid fan of Hardy and/or the gangster movie genre (which Legend is no more than a mediocre entry in), there’s no pressing reason for American theatergoers to put in the effort to seek out the film’s limited American release (additionally, the heavy British accents make some of the dialogue difficult to understand for American viewers).  In fact, my final summation of Legend is the same that ends my review of Bronson: both represent a noteworthy acting showcase for Tom Hardy, but as an overall film experience, it rings hollow.

* * 1/2

 

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