Tom Hardy is an amazingly diverse actor, but what’s great about him is that he can play a brute just as easily as he can be suave and debonair. It’s just not often he’s called upon to do both in the same film, and playing opposite himself, no less. But that’s what he gets to do in Brian Helgeland’s twin gangster tale, “Legend”, as the infamous London gangsters Reggie and Ronnie Kray. Double the Hardy is always going to be worth laying down a few bucks to see, but more often than not his dual performances are the only thing “Legend” has going for it.
The story of the Krays has been told before in the weird 1990 film, “The Krays”, which starred two members of the ’80s band Spandau Ballet. “Legend”, thankfully, isn’t that; it uses some nifty visual tricks to have Hardy playing both Kray brothers. What’s amazing is how easily Hardy becomes two completely different men, bringing different physical attributes, verbal cues and more. It doesn’t take long before you forget its one man playing them. If only there were more inspiration in telling the Krays’ story, rather than the point-by-point structure it eventually gives way to.
The Krays were kings of the London underground in the 1960s. Their firm, or gang, was infamous for extortion, fraud, and murder. But Reggie, the more level-headed brother, had aspirations of being something more. Strong-arming a therapist to release his psychotic, shark-toothed brother Ronnie from the mental ward, Reggie began using his influence and power to hob-nob with society’s elite. He also met the perfect girl, Frances (Emily Browning), and began turning his life around.
Ronnie, an admitted homosexual with a severely violent streak, wasn’t a fan of any of this. Not only does he keep yanking his brother back into the seedier side of being a gangster, but he’s not too fond of the attention being lavished on Frances. The pull between family obligation and legitimacy is the key dramatic tension, for what little of it there actually is. Helgeland, who also wrote the script, sets up a number of interesting storyline possibilities that go nowhere. A rival gang led by a hammy Paul Bettany is set up as potential foils, but are practically written off in voice-over. Much is made of Frances’ mental instability; her brother (played by Colin Morgan) refers to her as “fragile”, but little is made of it even though it’s something she shares in common with Ronnie. And while Hardy is great playing against a digital version of himself, only Reggie is a character to be taken seriously. Ronnie’s uncouth, caveman demeanor is played up as comic relief too often for him to be seen as someone to be feared. Helgeland, along with cinematographer Dick Pope, capture the period details beautifully, evoking the look and energy of Scorsese’s “Goodfellas”.
Still, if you’re going to see “Legend”, see it for Hardy who gets the rare opportunity to beat himself up in a fight. Turns out that twice the Hardy isn’t quite enough to ensure a great film, so an average one will have to do.