Director: Brian Helgeland
Cast: Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, David Thewlis, Christopher Ecclestone, Taron Egerton, Paul Anderson
Plot: Frances Shea (Browning) is dragged into the glamour of Reggie Kray’s (Hardy) world, slowly becoming aware of the horror of being too close to the Krays.
I have a natural dislike for British gangster films. Especially films that revolve around the very real story of the Krays. It isn’t necessarily the genre itself, which I have a distaste for, but the cult surrounding them. Gangster films often treat their leading characters as heroes – cheeky chappies from London, charmingly stealing the girls and tricking their opponents. Fans of the gangster genre love the idea of getting behind this ruthless hero, who treats his ‘family’ loyally, which forgives his crimes of terrorising the surrounding area into respecting them. Some even go as far as claiming that people like the Krays kept London safer by consolidating all of the danger people needed to fear into themselves. Quite frankly, that is bullshit. The Krays were monsters, plain and simple, and my true disdain for gangster films is that the majority of them forget that very important point.
The first half of Legend plays out very much like that. Even if Helgeland is sticking to the facts rather than the mythology, he needs to satisfy the gangster genre audience. Therefore we get the glamour side of the Krays’ lifestyle, shown through the eyes of Emily Browning’s sweet love interest, Frances. Tom Hardy’s Reggie Kray is that bloke on the street that knows everyone. He can’t cross a street or enter a bar without having to greet a group of people, often with a funny remark that shows he actually knows them personally. His seduction of Frances is well-written as well. He comes across as charming and loveable, channelling the very essence of Tom Hardy. This is very important, because we need to see a true connection between the two of them, so that when the bad things kick in, we don’t see Frances as a fool, making her an unreliable narrator of the story. We are then introduced to Ronnie Kray. Reggie is the charmer, while Ronnie is the raging psychopath, always a few pills away from bursting into an uncontrollable thug. Even Ronnie is given a lighter side though, coming across as surprisingly likeable due to his outright honesty. To be homosexual in the 60s was tough enough, so when Ronnie openly admits it to not only his close friends, but strangers and enemies alike, we end up respecting him for his outlook on life. This keeps Ronnie grounded when he begins to transform into a more vile character. The movie then embraces the gangster side of things, having fun with the genre. Reggie and Ronnie walk into a bar, get ambushed and calmly take care of the situation. It is a scene worthy of any gangster film and probably will end up the most talked about scene in the film. And the truth is, despite my cautious approach to the film, I had fun. It is a very fun first half of the movie, especially when Reggie and Ronnie come to blows and have an amusing punch-up in the middle of an empty nightclub. And this is all fine, in my books, because when Hilgeland hits the second half of Legend, he begins to peel away the glamour of the Krays and show their ugly, true colours. This is where most gangster films become undone. They see the fun, laddish side of classics like Godfather and Scarface, but miss the message that their lives were made hollow and meaningless, because they made the mistake of thinking crime pays. Therefore as the Krays lose control of their lives and begin to resort to more despicable measures to keep control of their empire, we get to see the reality of the Krays’ 60s. Finally, I get the gangster film I have always wanted.
And a lot of this is down to a powerhouse performance from Tom Hardy. While Mad Max gave him very little to do, Legend gives him not one, but two breath-taking roles. When I first heard that Hilgeland was going to use camera trickery and movie magic to have Tom Hardy play both of the Krays, I was dissuaded, assuming it would be a gimmick to drag more people to the cinema. However, this fact is never played on during the film. In fact, Hardy’s performances are so diverse and finely-tuned, that you keep forgetting that they are being played by the same actor. Not only does Hardy keep both performances fresh and varied, but he manages to conjure chemistry with himself, so the relationships between the brothers is one of the more dynamic double acts of 2015. Now, this isn’t as ground-breaking as movie critics will have you believe, the smaller screen doing this challenge back in 2012 with Orphan Black, but it still a magnificent triumphant for any actor. Few of the other actors even break the mould. Again, this is the gangster genre’s over-saturation at fault, because we have seen the actors here play these parts many times before. Paul Anderson seems to be making a living out of the same character these days. There isn’t a bad performance in the film, even if some actors like Ecclestone and Paul Bettany are underused. The two actors worth commenting on are Emily Browning and Taron Egerton. Egerton has fun as the homosexual muscle for Ronnie Kray, the performance carrying weight as it proves that the actor wasn’t just an one-hit wonder with Kingsman. Browning is superb, an actress often stuck with dud roles. Frances almost definitely isn’t one though, even if on paper, it looks a little flat. Frances might stick with Reggie Kray for longer than you might hope, but her character is both strong, relatable and real. Her heart-breaking story doesn’t quite lay a candle to Hardy’s twin performance, but you might be surprised about how close it gets.
Final Verdict: Finally a gangster movie that tells the true horror of the Krays’ reign on London, without sacrificing the fun side of things.