Tom Hardy has proved himself in recent years to be amongst the most compelling screen presences around. He’s so talented one might say you could enjoy watching him read a phonebook. However, if Brian Helgeland wrote or directed said phonebook, you’re better off throwing it in the bin. And burn it. Burn it with fire.
Legend proves this point. The film is the story of the infamous Kray brothers, twins Reggie and Ronnie, both of whom are played by Hardy. The Krays were a major force in the gangster underground of 1960s London. Reggie was the charismatic one, with a swagger and confidence that made the illegal look easy. Ronnie was, well, the monster. With a bit of the old psychopathy, Ronnie was sprung from a mental asylum and brought into the day-to-day happenings, where his paranoia and thirst for bashing heads in caused quite a few problems.
Standing outside of the picture, it doesn’t take much to see Legend as an intriguing bit of cinema. Hardy has the chops to portray each type. In fact, Hardy is as expected, bringing grace and menace in equal measures. An actor is only as good as the story he lives within and Helgeland’s is a tornado of tones, weakly presented ideas, thin characters and cowardly direction. Helgeland’s filmmaking is the type that likes to show a man’s heading being pummeled via a barrage of hammer smacks, yet timidly pulls the camera away when a woman gets beaten. Violence against women isn’t exactly a tempting display. That said, Helgeland only yanks his frame from the assaults so as not to paint his protagonists as badly as they are.
This is nothing new. Legend lifts heavily from gangster and mob pics of the past; including a reference to the storied Goodfellas one-shot that Helgeland rides so hard you’d think he was a jockey and not a director. The complaint isn’t that these crooks and criminals are portrayed in a flattering light. The issue is how Helgeland shies the audience from the worst of the worst, at least when it comes to Reggie. Ronnie he lets be a terror, quite literally frothing at the mouth with anger. Reggie though, he is supposed to be the sweet one, and Helgeland has no clue how to differentiate the men’s morality outside of broad strokes. Reggie smiles and laughs, Ronnie grunts and rambles, with Hardy’s voice so muddled it makes his Bane seem like a tool used to teach kids proper English.
The problem is doubled-down when it comes to Reggie’s wife, a totally wasted Emily Browning. She narrates in a drone, all while her character is presented as thoroughly naïve; a waif that keeps asking hubby to go the straight and narrow. When her relationship to Reggie takes the forefront alongside the twins’ deteriorating bond, Legend becomes a bore.
It’s a shame, because the opening twenty minutes has a fair bit of pop. Seeing the Krays function in their own bizarre manner gets some laughs. A negotiation gone wrong is the movie’s highpoint, letting Hardy prove his skills as a brooding and brutish thespian. Again, a quality movie is more than its acting though. Casting is just one small piece of the picture.