Review: Legend’s superficial approach to the gangster movie brings nothing new to the genre

Gangster flicks are a perennial favourite of moviegoers, particularly those that examine the moral ambiguity that exists when human beings immerse themselves in the inhumanity of the underworld. This approach yielded all-time classics like The Godfather, Heat and The Departed, and it’s the tack director Brian Helgeland takes with Legend, his new biopic about infamous London crime lords Reggie and Ronnie Kray. Yet despite not one but two committed performances by star Tom Hardy, Legend falls well short of the genre’s best outings – its superficial storytelling adding nothing new to our understanding of the criminal psyche.

In 1960s London, twins Reggie and Ronnie Kray (both played by Tom Hardy) are prominent figures in both legitimate and illegitimate circles. They manage glitzy nightclubs frequented by the social elite, as while running an organised crime empire in the East End. Reggie is a charming, shrewd operator not afraid to get his hands dirty if the need arises, while brother Ron is an awkward, erratic psychopath with a thirst for violence.

When Legend opens, the Krays are plotting to expand their criminal influence beyond the East End. This brings them head-to-head with rival gangs and the police force – led by detective Nipper Read (Christopher Eccleston) – and strains their already volatile relationship. Further complicating matters is Reggie’s fledgling romance with fragile beauty Frances (Emily Browning), a passionate affair that sets in motion a tragic chain of events destined to live forever in London’s folklore.

Legend is pretty much your typical “rise and fall” deal, albeit one with strong undercurrents of black comedy, courtesy of Helgeland’s witty script. Unfortunately, this sly wit isn’t enough to rescue a screenplay hobbled by clunky voiceover, thin characterisation and well-worn themes. Reggie’s transformation from likable (if rough) rogue to out-and-out thug feels rushed, whereas Ronnie’s open homosexuality – something that could have set Legend apart from more traditionally “macho” gangland movies – is never explored with any depth, nor is their relationship with their infamously enabling mother.

And the overall message of the movie? Crime is bad, and getting caught up in it is likely to end badly. It’s hardly ground-breaking stuff.

Even with little to sink their collective teeth into, Legend‘s cast still delivers. Browning, Ecclestone, David Thewlis, and Taron Egerton are in top form, albeit criminally underused. Then there’s Hardy, whose incredible double-act as both Krays is reason enough to see the film. The English actor excels are portraying two distinctly separate individuals, to the extent that you quickly forget one actor is playing both parts.

As Reggie, he’s all swagger and leading man charm, while the Ronnie role sees him in character actor mode, his nasal voice and twitchy disposition serving as an unsettling counterbalance to Ronnie’s menacing presence. Admittedly, Hardy occasionally veers perilously close to caricature as Ronnie, however, this loud performance ultimately works, and watching him build on-screen chemistry with himself is utterly engrossing.

Equally compelling is the lurid East End world that Hardy’s Kray twins inhabit, and Legend is one of the best-looking crime thrillers in several years thanks to Dick Pope’s rich cinematography. Pope effectively captures the stark reality of life in the East End without resorting to a drab palette of purely browns and greys that dominate contemporary gangster pics.

Equally commendable is the visual effects work used to transport us back to the London of a bygone era. This digital trickery is as seamless as that used to allow Hardy to share the screen with himself – make-or-break CGI that, happily, goes off without a hitch. Completing Legend‘s spot-on period feel is Carter Burwell’s score and a well-chosen line-up of licensed 60s songs, including tracks by The Rockin’ Berries, The Yardbirds, and Rod Stewart.

As a new addition to the gangster movie canon, Legend is underwhelming, to say the least. But as a showcase for the acting chops of star Tom Hardy, it’s a knock-out. Indeed, the real crime here is that writer-director Brian Helgeland couldn’t craft a film worthy of his leading man’s considerable talents.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

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