[This is a re-post of my Legend review from the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. The film is now playing in limited release.]
It’s hard to make an uninteresting movie when you have Tom Hardy playing twin gangster brothers, and yet Legend is somehow up to the task. There’s surely a good story to be found in the life of the Kray Brothers, a pair of gangsters who ruled East End London in the 1960s, and while Legend at times gets close to finding something fascinating to say (or do), unfortunately it meanders its way through most of its overlong 131 minute runtime, resulting in a bore of a movie that leans far too heavily on familiar cliches.
Written and directed by Brian Helgeland, Legend charts the rise and fall of Reggie and Ronald Kray, with Hardy filling both roles of the identical twins. While Reggie and Ronnie are dual leaders of their criminal gang, Reggie—the “handsome” one—somewhat takes the captain role over Ronnie, who’s an odd fellow diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Reggie opts to run their operations with a cool head, but Ronnie—who makes no effort to hide his homosexuality despite the culture of the time, which is one of the film’s few delights—is a bit of a loose cannon, prone to explosions and generally strange behavior, no doubt due to deep-rooted jealousy over his put-together brother.
This dynamic, coupled with Reggie’s deep loyalty to his blood relative despite the trouble Ronnie may cause, results in a quick rise up the ranks in the East End. On their way to the top, Reggie falls in love with a woman named Frances Shea (Emily Browning), adding a wife who yearns for Reggie to go legitimate to complicate matters further. Additionally, an ambitious London cop (Christopher Eccleston) is determined to bring the Kray Brothers down once and for all.
So that sounds pretty interesting, yeah? Indeed, more than a few moments of Legend are engaging, but the film doesn’t really know where it’s going and, at over two hours in length, becomes an absolute slog in its back half. It’s clear from the onset that Helgeland is trying to make his own version of Goodfellas, complete with an uninspired long take in a night club and voice over narration from Browning, but the film falls so short of that bar that you’re left wishing you were just watching Goodfellas instead.
Hardy is one of the most fascinating actors working today, and while the prospect of the performer taking on a pair of gangsters in the 1960s is highly promising, unfortunately the results aren’t nearly electric as they could’ve been. Hardy is clearly having a ball characterizing the distinct personalities of the brothers—especially Ronnie, whose voice he imbues with a touch of The Dark Knight Rises‘ Bane. But some of the dialogue is tough to understand due to Hardy’s stylized accents, and there are moments when his performance as Ronnie surpasses over-the-top, nearly veering into comedy which, although ill-fitting to the mostly serious tone Helgeland sets, is also a movie I would have rather seen than Legend.
Browning’s Frances technically has a major impact on the film’s plot, but is ultimately an uninteresting “complication” thrown between Reggie and Ronnie, and her chemistry with Hardy is nonexistent. Which is unfortunate, because a good portion of the film is devoted to chronicling the relationship between Reggie and Frances, servicing every gangster movie cliché in the book along the way. The cinematography is sufficiently handsome (Dick Pope doesn’t miss), but as if an underwhelming story wasn’t enough, an impressive though incongruous score by Carter Burwell undermines many of the film’s most dramatic moments.
Hardy does have some engaging sequences, mostly due to his willingness to play with characterization in relation to twin brothers, but more often than not the derivative script saddles him with little to do. At one point in Legend, Browning explains in voiceover that by the end of their journey, the characters were ghosts of the people they once were. It’s a fitting observation, given that the film itself feels like the ghost of a countless better movies we’ve already seen before.