There have been countless different approaches to the gangster film over the last 50 years, with some filmmakers setting out to glorify and immortalise their outlaw subjects, and others to fiercely condemn them.
Generally speaking, the most compelling way of tackling the gangster flick has been to examine the emotional and thematic space in-between these two approaches, with films such as The Godfather, Heat and The Departed focusing on the moral ambiguity that exists when human beings immerse themselves in the inhumanity of the underworld.
This third route is employed in Legend, director Brian Helgeland’s latest film starring Tom Hardy as infamous real-life London crime lords Reggie and Ronnie Kray, although the superficiality of the film’s screenplay provides little new insight into the criminal mindset.
The plot of Legend is a straightforward one. In 1960s London, twins Reggie and Ronnie Kray are prominent figures in both legitimate and illegitimate circles, managing nightclubs frequented by the social elite, as well as ruling organised crime in the East End.
Reggie is an outwardly 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.
Together, the pair plan to control crime throughout the city, but are forced to contend with both rival gangs and the police force, led by detective Nipper Read (Christopher Eccleston), not to mention their own volatile relationship.
This already tense situation becomes further complicated when Reggie begins to romance fragile beauty Frances (Emily Browing), setting into motion a tragic chain of events destined to live forever in London’s folklore.
So Legend is pretty much your typical “rise and fall” deal, albeit one with strong undercurrents of black comedy, courtesy of Helgeland’s witty script.
It looks good too. In fact, I’d go so far as to call the film one of the best looking crime thrillers I’ve seen 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.
Equally commendable is the visual effects work used to transport us back to the London of a bygone era, which is as seamless as the digital trickery used to allow Hardy to share the screen with himself (a shout out here to Hardy’s make-up artist Audrey Doyle, who no doubt played a huge part in this as well).
It’s not just your eyes that are in for a treat either. Carter Burwell’s score hits all the right notes, and the soundtrack also makes good use of 60s tracks, which seem an almost obligatory inclusion for a film set in this period.
Less pleasing on the ear than the music is the voice over delivered by Frances as the story plays out. While the early narration works well to bring the audience up to speed on the characters and their world, latter attempts at poignancy come across a little clunky, despite Browning’s best efforts.
That said, the entire cast, including Browning, Ecclestone, David Thewlis and Taron Egerton, are in top form, although it feels like many of the supporting players are underused, and we never really get to know anyone other than our three leads.
Not that this matters, as even the greatest of supporting turns would have struggled to get noticed next to the one-two punch of Hardy’s performance (or is that performances?).
Even putting aside the technical aspects involved, Hardy does a remarkable job of convincing the audience that we’re watching two separate individuals, and you’ll soon find yourself forgetting that one man is portraying both Kray brothers.
As Reggie, Hardy is all swagger and leading man charm, while as Ronnie he’s essentially in character actor mode, adopting a nasally voice and twitchy disposition which counterbalances the unstable twin’s menacing presence.
If he occasionally veers perilously close to caricature in the Ronnie role, Hardy ultimately knocks it out of the park with this double act, and watching him build on-screen chemistry with himself is utterly engrossing.
LOOK OUT! SPOILERS!
That said, even Hardy’s best efforts aren’t enough to mask the flaws of a screenplay that never scratches much deeper than the surface level of its characters or themes.
In the case of Reggie, his eventual transformation from likeable rogue with vicious tendencies to an out-and-out thug seems a bit abrupt.
True, the seeds for this are scattered throughout the first two acts of the film, but rather than coming across as something discovered gradually by Frances and the audience alike, it feels like we get a handful of hints at Reggie’s true nature and then, before you know it, we’re thrown in the deep end by a scene of domestic (and possibly sexual) abuse.
Similarly, Ronnie’s homosexuality is never really explored to any great extent. It’s admirable that Legend doesn’t shy away from including this historical element, but aside from a few interesting scenes early on, not a lot gets done with the fertile concept of an openly gay gangster in the traditionally homophobic gangland environment.
That’s largely the problem with Legend: it has buckets of potential, but so little of it is followed through. By the end of the film, we don’t know too much more about either of the twins than when we started, and promising lines of enquiry regarding their motivation (such as the part played by their mother) are only frustratingly teased at.
There’s also not much new in what the movie has to say about being a gangster. As the title suggests, the film is ostensibly concerned with the lasting infamy achieved by criminals like the Krays, but really, this mostly boils down to the well-worn message that crime isn’t as glamorous as it seems, and that those involved are invariably not nice people who come unstuck.
Where Helgeland does manage to differentiate his film from the majority of crime thrillers that have ploughed a similar thematic furrow is in how he handles the concepts of love and loyalty.
I’ve written before about the dual nature of love in fiction, how it is something to both aspire to and fear, and if there’s a key takeaway in Legend, it’s that devotion can bring you down hard.
It’s most obviously manifest in Reggie’s continued loyalty to Ronnie. On the face of it, this brotherly affection would seem to be Reggie’s most redeeming trait, but it soon becomes clear that this supposed virtue is also one of his biggest failings.
After all, it’s this same sense of loyalty that drives Reggie to set Ron loose from the psychiatric ward he so obviously belongs in. It’s also what allows him to forgive his brother’s destructive behaviour time and time again. And in the end, it’s what leads him to murder Jack “The Hat” McVitie, mostly because he can’t bring himself to kill Ronnie instead, an act which brings about his own downfall.
Ronnie too suffers for his attachment to his brother. In his own terrifying and pathetic way, Ron genuinely feels a strong sense of kinship towards his twin, and coupled with his psychosis, this can motivate him to commit terrible acts in response to anything he feels threatens this bond.
Lastly, there’s poor Frances, whose infatuation with the suave Reggie and naïve faith that he’ll honour his promise to go straight are brutally rewarded with a depressing life of neglect and intimidation that finally ends in suicide.
It’s commonplace for underworld films to consider notions of love and loyalty, but usually this is in the context of these noble concepts being absent, and the associated negative outcomes of this absence.
By presenting a tragic narrative where the presence of love and loyalty are in fact the cause of what transpires, Legend is able to stand apart from the majority of other films in the genre, if only a little.
THE SPOILERS! THEY’RE…THEY’RE GONE!
Legend is a film best enjoyed if you enter the cinema having already managed your expectations.
If you purchase your ticket hoping to see a unique and profound new take on the gangster movie, you’ll leave disappointed. However, if you attend eager to witness an excellent acting showcase, you’ll more than get your money’s worth.