In “Legend,” a new true crime drama about Britain’s most notorious gangsters, Tom Hardy plays the dual roles of Ronnie and Reginald Kray. Identical twins, the violent thugs ruled London’s underworld during the 1950s and 1960s and became celebrities of a sort, even being photographed by David Bailey and featured on television. Question is, will Hardy’s mirror imaging of the guys be like Wrigley’s “Double your pleasure! Double your fun!” gum or too much of a good thing?
“Legend” begins with voiceover from Reggie’s wife Frances Shea (Emily Browning). “London in the 1960s,” she says. “Everyone has a story about the Krays. Walk into any pub and everyone had a lie about them.” The film strings those romanticizes those stories in a genre-friendly tale of two men on the rise through London’s underworld.
Reggie is a slickster, a thug with a soft spot for Frances and the prestige of owning nightclubs. Ron is unpredictable, a psychopath prone to beating people with a hammer. The brothers are a unit, but two very different cogs of the same wheel. Reggie is straight, Ron is gay, openly so, which in London’s 1960s underworld was an enlightened stance. Reggie tried to work within the system; Ron tried to dismantle it. The thing that bound them was blood, theirs and that of their victims. “My loyalty to my brother is how I measure myself,” says Reggie.
Told from Frances’s point of view, the movie paints a vivid picture of her relationship with Reggie—he sweet talks her with, “The center of the earth can be anywhere you’d like… even the east end of London.”—and Swingin’ London with nightclubs and violent scenes that play like Scorsese with an English accent. On the personal side of the story the downside to being married to a gangster with a blood-is-thicker-than-water connection to his volatile brother quickly becomes apparent and brings the story to a film noir conclusion.
Written and directed by “LA Confidential” and “Mystic River” screenwriter Brian Helgeland “Legend” is a companion piece to the 1990 biopic “The Krays,” which starred actual twins, Spandau Ballet’s Martin and Gary Kemp as Reggie and Ron. The new film is less gritty—there is nothing that comes close to the brutal horror of Gary Kemp using a sword to give a stranger a gruesome “permanent smile”—choosing instead to play up the glamour of the period and the legend of London’s gangland.
It’s a less sensational portrait of the brothers but just as gimmicky in its own way. Special effects allow Hardy to play both brothers and while his performances are frequently impressive, it often feels like a trick to distract from an underwritten story. He effortlessly nails Reggie’s toxic mix of charm and brutality but as Ron seems to be trying too hard. Pulling faces that wouldn’t be out of place in “Reefer Madness,” Hardy strains to perform through facial prosthetics, occasionally to unintended comic effect.
“Legend” is aptly titled. More Kray Bros lore than nuance, it provides a glossy but glossed over look at the violent men behind the bespoke suits.