Ever since the genre's inception, gangster movies have had a difficult time masking their fondness for their main characters. Yes, there are obligatory statements that crime doesn't pay, that killing is bad and that greed eventually undoes even the mightiest of empires, but in most cases, the main message being sent is, “These guys are awesome, right?” That tendency has become even more pronounced over the past twenty-five years or so, as Martin Scorsese's terrific Goodfellas has become the genre's new go-to template. Goodfellas actually devotes a sizable chunk of its running time to the horrifying consequences of mob life, but most of the film's imitators don't seem particularly interested in that stuff. Case in point: Brian Helgeland's Legend, a British gangster flick which slavishly mimics the macho swagger, music-fueled energy and punchy violence of Goodfellas without ever really recognizing what makes Scorsese's film so memorable. It's tedious... or it would be, if Tom Hardy's dual-role performance wasn't so consistently riveting.
Hardy plays Reggie and Ronnie Kray, a pair of twin brothers who have devoted themselves to the task of taking over London's criminal underground. Reggie is a former boxer and the more eloquent of the two; a silver-tongued charmer who would rather talk his way out of a situation than resort to violence. Ronnie is... well, Ronnie is something else. He was just released from a mental institution, but only because his psychiatrist was threatened and paid off. Ronnie is the sort of guy who eagerly embraces any opportunity for bloody chaos, which naturally causes a bit of tension in his relationship with his brother.
Eventually, the Krays manage to gain control of a London nightclub, which they use as their base of operations. Reggie's a good businessman, and quickly begins arranging lucrative deals with bankers, policemen, American gangsters and other useful allies. None of this sits particularly well with Ronnie, who would rather just terrify everyone and run a dictatorship of sorts.
Despite the fact that Ronnie's thick glasses set him apart from Reggie pretty easily, Hardy makes each of the brothers so distinctive that we'd never confuse them even if they looked exactly alike. As Reggie, he's doing stellar leading man work, smoothly negotiating his way through a series of complicated situations... he's the guy who's always calm during a storm. Ronnie, on the other hand, is the storm. Though Reggie's thick British accent can be a little difficult to understand, Ronnie's mush-mouthed dialect is almost completely incomprehensible. Sometimes the other characters in the film have trouble understanding Ronnie, too, which is part of why so many conversations end in violence.
The differences between the characters offer a striking demonstration of Hardy's range: Reggie's smirk contrasted with Ronnie's scowl, Reggie's flirty heterosexuality contrasted with Ronnie's complicated bisexuality, and the twinkle in Reggie's eyes contrasted with the madness in Ronnie's. When both of the characters are onscreen at the same time, bickering their way through business matters, the movie springs to life. It's a unique delight to see Hardy steal scenes from himself when Ronnie comes trampling into one of Reggie's scenes like a bull in a china shop. Hardy and Hardy have terrific chemistry together, but there's a lot of other business to deal with in Legend, and almost all of it is derivative junk.
Legend's other main character is Frances Shea (Emily Browning, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events), Reggie's girlfriend and eventual wife. She narrates the movie and has roughly as much screentime as Hardy, but her prominent placement in the film only highlights the fact that she's an incredibly underwritten character. Frances' arc is the arc of every mob movie wife: she thinks her guy is dangerous and exciting, then she thinks her guy is dangerous and annoying. That's more or less it, and as a result, a couple of huge moments in the third act don't have nearly the emotional impact they ought to have (it doesn't help that one of those moments is a complete fabrication that doesn't really fit with the rest of the movie).
Elsewhere, it's more subgrade Scorsese material, with a series of gangster movie stereotypes parading through and participating in scenes that feel as stale as last week's leftovers. Despite Helgeland's Scorsese-inspired attempts to juice things up with an endless barrage of period-appropriate pop songs and stylish cinematography, it's impossible to get invested in the film's tedious gang wars and business deals. A lot of terrific actors are littered throughout the supporting cast (David Thewlis, Paul Bettany, Christopher Eccleston, Chazz Palmenteri), but this seems like a case of hoping that good actors will overcome weak parts.
As with Black Mass (the year's other high-profile gangster movie), the film's dullness feels particularly curious when you consider how wildly colorful the real-life story is. The things the Krays do in Legend pale in comparison to the things they did in real life. The true story of Ronnie being released from the mental institution is memorable enough to form the basis of a heist movie. Reggie was actually bisexual, too, and the brothers reportedly had an incestuous affair with each other in order to hide their sexuality from the general public. In the right hands, this could have been a wildly unconventional gangster flick. As it is, Legend is just another Goodfellas wannabe. It's a tremendous showcase for Hardy's talent, but his performance deserves a much better framework.
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 132 minutes
Release Year: 2015