Brian Helgeland’s Legend owes more than just passing “respects” to Goodfellas. It should kneel, kiss its ring and swear to handle whatever favours are asked of it. From its use of period precise music to its narration to long take club-entering shots, Legend shoots for that Scorsese vibe and view of the intoxicating power of gangster life. It doesn’t achieve that of course (primarily due to far too many moments that are inexcusably mundane), but still manages to keep a good pace and remain mostly entertaining. And that is primarily due to two key performances: those of Tom Hardy and also Tom Hardy.
Legend covers the rise and reign of the Kray brothers – the legendary gangster twin siblings who grew up in London’s East End. As the film opens, the pair are already local celebrities who ingratiate themselves with the neighbourhood while also running protection rackets and a few nightclubs. Reggie has business sense and can put things into context, but can also suddenly “lose his temper”. As violent as he can be, it feels controlled and with purpose. His brother Ron, however, is all instinct, fight first and ask questions never. He feels that when in doubt, it’s always best to stir things up. He doesn’t easily mix in with general society, though has no issues in openly proclaiming his bisexuality even though the film takes place during the 50s-60s. He begins the film in an asylum, but is released after a little “convincing” of his doctor by Reggie. Clearly no one believes he is in his right mind due to his appetite for mayhem, but Reggie wants/needs him out – they’re brothers after all. Though Reggie wrestles with it occasionally, Ron always wins the competition for Reggie’s allegiance – a battle fought more often after Reggie marries the beautiful young Frances (Emily Browning with a fantastic supporting performance by her cheekbones). Though not necessarily looking to give up “the life”, Reggie does somewhat long to simply run his new club in the West End. It’s profitable, the rich & famous drop by and it’s a sign that they have moved towards conquering all of London and acquiring that broader respect. Of course, that doesn’t fit with Ron’s plans and he actively destroys the regular clientele when Reggie has to do a short spell in prison.
Though there is a good dose of humour in how the Krays approach threatening situations and the conversations they have with their gang, a big chunk of the film focuses on Reggie and Frances. That would be fine if it built to anything, but Frances’ character is paper thin (Browning is fine, but she has little to work with). As if to prove this, when she turns to pills (“mother’s little helpers”) due to Reggie’s neglect, there is no perceptible change in her behaviour. Rarely does it feel that she is in any peril even though she has been swept up into “the life”. Even during her verbal sparring with Ronnie, there’s never a sense of palpable danger for her character. Considering she is the narrator for the film, you’d think there would be a deeper connection to her predicament, but sadly that never happens.
Nor do we really learn much about the Krays’ background or how they got into their life of crime. At least the brothers are at least fully formed characters when we meet them though. Hardy is great in the dual roles and puts definite (and consistent) touches on each of the Krays. These aren’t just one note stock criminals who mug their way through a variety of violent scenes – Hardy goes beyond just surface tics and manages to bring distinctive attributes to each brother and keep them interesting. Having said that, a bit more mayhem could have suited the film. Helgeland doesn’t add too much new style to this type of film, but it certainly is competently shot. For example, his 5 minute tracking shot of Reggie and Frances entering the club is well executed – as it moves Reggie between his wife and some “business” he needs to take care of in another part of the bar – but provides nothing additional to the characters or story. And aside from Hardy keeping things compelling, the film itself provides nothing much more to the canon of crime movies.