Brian Helgeland is no stranger to impressive periods and figures of the 20th century. He wrote the screenplay for the 1997 neo-noir “L.A. Confidential,” which explored the connection (and corruption) of Hollywood cops and celebrities in the 1950s. His movie directorial debut in 2013, “42,” focused on the racial tensions between Jackie Robinson and the entire American baseball world in the 1940s. In his second time as director, Helgeland takes on the swingin’ sixties for “Legend,” the story of two of London’s most notorious gangsters.
20 years after World War II, England’s capital wasn’t afraid of Luftwaffe air raids, but of the Kray twins: Ronald and Reginald. “Legend” is the supposed rise and fall of the crime empire these thugs built. But like “Black Mass” in September 2015, the overall movie is an uneven and disappointing experiment in what could have been a British gangster movie in the spirit of Martin Scorsese, the golden standard for any good crime movie worth its bullets. For example, one tracking shot follows Reggie and his girlfriend walking into a club and alternates between business and pleasure, a nod to the Copacabana scene from “Goodfellas.”
In terms of period piece, the film gets the aesthetic part right in recreating the soot-stained streets of London’s underworld in the 1960s when the Krays terrorized the city in which they operated. The soundtrack may be the best part of the movie, with rock and rhythm and blues hits from Booker T. & the M.G.’s, The Rockin Berries, Young Hoult Unlimited, The Yardbirds, Herman’s Hermits, The Dixie Cups and Carter Burwell.
The identical law-breaking brothers are another redeeming feature in an otherwise half-baked venture. They’re played by Tom Hardy in a laudable dual role. Reggie is the more straight-laced of the pair who knows how to do business and charm the ladies. Ronnie, on the other hand, is a ruthless loose cannon, a paranoid schizophrenic (with an affinity for boys) who isn’t above hitting you over the head with a hammer or taking out a hit on someone as if it were nothing; he’s like a British Joe Pesci. Movie magic brings the two Hardys on screen together , but it’s the actor who is the truly magical one, giving each a distinct personality. The family dynamic between them is almost like that of George and Lennie in “Of Mice and Men” as Reggie looks out for his unpredictable brother who causes all kinds of trouble with the law.
“Legend” is narrated by Reggie’s girlfriend and eventual wife Frances (the always lovely Emily Browning) who turns a story of crime into a tragic love story as she faces dissonance between her affections for the man and her dislike of his wrongdoing. It’s something that never truly resolves itself and the oddity of her narration becomes something of “American Beauty” towards the film’s end. The intended effect is to achieve a kind of redemption, but there is no real catharsis.
With love getting in the way, there’s no real depiction of the twins’ rise to power. All we have for proof is France’s word and a few scenes of intimidation, bar fights and partnerships with Meyer Lansky and the American mafia. Other than that, the crime movie that you hoped for is lost amid family drama and marital problems. In other words, Helgeland is more preoccupied with the human element of these criminals rather than the crimes themselves. Not always such a bad thing, but Scorsese always finds the perfect balance between his characters and the debauchery he depicts on screen. Like a classic Scorsese pic, however, it’s all very episodic and never really goes in any coherent chronological order.
Speaking of coherence, most of the dialogue is uttered with a heavy East End cockney accent that makes Guy Ritchie movies sound like Shakespeare. Make sure to listen carefully, because it may be hard to discern what people are actually saying, especially Ronnie whose low and dangerous growl is almost a reproduction of Bane’s from “The Dark Knight Rises.”
Other than the twins and Frances, David Thewlis and Taron Egerton make welcome additions as the Krays’ business manager and one of Ronnie’s lovers respectively. Paul Bettany even has a small, yet colorful role as a member of the South London Torture Gang.
All in all, the film may not live up to its title, but it’s a story that has yet to be told in mainstream Hollywood. For all its shortcomings, “Legend” is still a competent period piece and conduit for an unbelievable double performance from Tom Hardy. If you don’t like that you can, as they say in the East End, bugger off.