Tom Hardy is both one of our best actors and one of our best movie stars, so it would stand to reason that a film in which he gets to wear both hats is a cause for celebration. But no. No, it is not.
In “Legend,” Hardy plays real-life twin gangsters Reggie and Ronnie Kray, notorious criminals of 1960s London’s East End who forged an empire through fear and violence.
Ronnie, as written and played, is unequivocally crazy. The first time we see him, in fact, he’s in a mental institution mumbling about how he can will another patient into giving him his breakfast just by staring at him. Reggie is more even-keeled, the smooth operator of the twins’ enterprise. He is Ronnie’s protector and apologist.
The two have a few physical differences. Reggie is Hardy at his most beautiful and tailored, with other characters noting many times how lovely he looks. Ronnie, for whom Hardy wears a few extra pounds and a prosthetic nose, isn’t so pretty.
Not that the superficial distinctions were necessary. Hardy makes each Kray easily distinguishable through a thousand choices, the biggest of which is Ron’s croaky, garbled mumble vs. Reg’s confident purr. His dual performance is an actorly feat on par with Jeremy Irons in “Dead Ringers” and Nicolas Cage in “Adaptation.” He’d almost certainly get an Oscar nomination if this movie were any good.
“Legend” was written and directed by Brian Helgeland, whose CV has had its highs (“L.A. Confidential”) and its lows (“The Postman”). Working from a nonfiction book about the Krays, Helgeland draws upon a few years for the film’s time frame, chronicling the Krays’ rise to power, Reggie’s marriage to Frances (Emily Browning) and the brothers’ eventual fall and incarceration.
As with last year’s gloomier “Black Mass,” the zoom-out approach of “Legend” operates like a rote recitation of events and facts and this happened and this happened and this happened. The Krays go to war with another gang. The Krays dodge jail through blackmail. The Krays thwart the investigation of a nosy copper (Christopher Eccleston). Ronnie screws up. Reggie cleans up. Ronnie screws up ...
The movie is just a string of episodes that barely hold together.
The most problematic thread is Reggie and Frances’ love story. The affair gradually grows sour, coming to a head with a turn that is as lazy as it is vile and doesn’t even have the defense of being factual; what really happened was far more interesting.
Browning is a good actress, but Frances is too much of a cipher for her to do much with the role. In a weird choice, Helgeland makes Frances the film’s narrator, and her tough, authoritative voiceover gels awkwardly with a character who’s mostly in the dark about her husband and brother-in-law’s business. Frances the narrator is a veritable scholar of Kray lore. Frances the character is a prop waiting around to react to Reggie’s latest screw-up or Ronnie’s latest blowup.
That’s true of most of the movie’s non-Kray characters, in fact. Hardy’s boys suck up all the air in the room; no one else has a lot to do or leaves much of an impression.
Paul Bettany is amusing as an erudite rival gangster, but his screen time is only a few minutes. Taron Egerton (star of last year’s “Kingsman”) gives the movie some welcome goofiness as Ronnie’s lover.
Did I mention Ronnie is gay? Openly gay in the 1960s. He’s such a scary dude that no one would dare question his sexual orientation unless they wanted to die horribly. This is probably the most interesting thing about Ronnie, actually. (And it’s sort of true; both the Krays were reportedly bisexual in real life, but in the movie each brother falls firmly on one side of the spectrum.)
Ronnie’s sexual proclivities aside, mostly the Krays are kind of boring, despite Hardy’s efforts. Each is a boilerplate crime movie archetype, Reggie a decaffeinated version of Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill, Ronnie a more volatile variant of Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito.
And yet even so, when Hardy and Hardy share the screen (whether they’re bonding, bickering or brawling), the movie wakes up. A turgid gangster biopic snaps into a lively madcap comedy. A great actor gets to square off against himself, and it’s a thrill to watch, even in so shabby an arena.
Cast: Tom Hardy, Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, Taron Egerton
Director: Brian Helgeland
Rating: R for strong violence, language throughout, some sexual and drug material
Running time: 2 hours, 11 minutes
Available on DVD and video-on-demand Tuesday.