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By Zachary Colbert · October 9, 2015
The Kray twins have been immortalized on screen more than once before. In 1990 Martin and Gary Kemp played the notorious London crime duo in the eponymous film The Krays, and Monty Python used them as inspiration for their sketch characters The Piranha Brothers way back in 1970. With half a dozen screen and page incarnations it's obvious why writer/director Brian Helgeland chose to tell this story from the fresh perspective of Reggie Kray's girlfriend Frances Shea. Unfortunately this angle doesn't always work, compromised mainly by the brothers' own volatile yet magnetic relationship, which refuses to be relegated from center stage.
Reggie Kray is the calm and charismatic yin to twin brother Ron's, eccentric and unpredictable yang. Both enjoy the gangster life and are predisposed to extreme violence, however Reggie strives to evolve their criminal enterprise from standard protection rackets to more complex, legitimate businesses in the form of nightclubs and casinos. Alternatively, Ron is blood thirsty and flamboyant, keen to operate by the code of the streets, delivering revenge and commanding respect through violence and intimidation. Tom Hardy plays both in a stunning dual performance set to rival Jeremy Iron's turn in Dead Ringers. He makes Reggie smooth and in control of the undercurrents of deadly aggression that bubble below the surface, while Ron is tense-jawed, erratic and often hilarious. In an opening scene, when Frances first meets Ron, he bluntly declares himself a homosexual – an unexpected, frank and endearing admission considering the era and the man himself.
Set in London's East End during the swinging sixties, Helgeland's slick direction teamed with the shiny cinematography of Dick Pope gives everything a sumptuous glitz. This works well for the schmoozing social scenes and blitzkriegs of violence, but less so when Detective Superintendant 'Nipper' Read (played by a dowdy but determined Christopher Eccelston) is chasing Reggie through the alleyways of Whitechapel. It's all too crisp and polished as they duck and weave between washing lines limp with drying clothes.
The US connection is most effective when Las Vegas mafia don Angelo Bruno (Chazz Palmintieri) flies across the pond to strike up a partnership with the capricious brothers. The interaction highlights how gritty and small-scale The Krays operate in comparison to their ostentatious American counterparts, and exposes the difference between Reggie and Ron. The latter is unimpressed and uninterested in the US affiliation, but the former sees healthy business prospects and prosperity in the potential partnership. Again, Tom Hardy's arresting performances lift the film, transcending a script that has muzzle flashes of pure brilliance but often tries too hard and misses the target.
The overarching problem is the film doesn't know whose story it wants to tell. With Frances Shea's narration (played by an on form Emily Browning), Brian Helgeland obviously wants to tell the tale from her point of view – less a gangster biopic and more a love story between her and Reggie. But France's largely passive role and under-developed character means her narration always feels a bit detached and uninvested, making it difficult to care. This coupled with the relationship between the two brothers being so central, and so clearly the point of conflict throughout, it feels like Legend should've simply told the story of the twins, charismatic and capable yet bound by blood and destined to be each other's downfall. This is what drives the plots and charges every scene — but of course, it's well trodden ground.
Legend may not be the masterpiece many have made out; at times it's overwrought, overwritten and definitely overrated, but with the poignant and captivating performances of Tom Hardy under Brian Helgeland's glossy direction, it's certainly a fun three-star frolic. If only the twins had made it out of gangland London.